There's little doubt that Manhattan is in the midst of a massive glamification, and has been for a long time. Which is why I couldn't stop obsessing about a particular building near my place in the East Village. I pass it all the time and it's hard to miss. Boarded up and left to lie deteriorating for a while, it made me wonder: What is the deal?
Located opposite a luxury building where a one-bedroom, one and a half bath is in contract for nearly $2 million, and around the corner from two luxury rentals where apartments can be had for anywhere from $3,000 to five digits a month, near restaurants like Momofuku Ssäm Bar (where the legendary Bo Ssäm goes for $225), it's clearly no sign of a neighborhood in decline. (On the contrary, gentrification has firmly set roots here.) Yet, this building has looked like this for much of the last two decades. I wanted to know: Did it pose any hazard to the neighborhood, and why hasn't it been torn down or—given today’s market—snapped up and renovated?
According to the NYC Department of Buildings, it has the authority to take action on properties that are dangerous to the public, not ones that are structurally sound but unoccupied, which means if that eyesore on your block is simply unsightly but not unsafe, there’s not much that can be done to eliminate it. (In the event that a building is declared structurally unsafe, the DoB seeks a court order to pursue a demolition. If this order is granted by a judge, the demo will be enforced and carried out by a contractor requested by the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development.)
But isn’t a building like this crawling with roaches and rats? And doesn’t that constitute a risk to the public? Not necessarily, says Gil Bloom of Standard Pest Management. “Pests like roaches and rodents are attracted to a property because of the potential for food. There’s not likely to be anything to feed on in a building that has been sealed off like [this one]. With nothing to feed on, the odds are there isn’t much going on inside.”
(In fact, according to Bloom, the real problems occur during the construction, or reconstruction, phase of a project. “Workers often introduce food and garbage to a site and that attracts pests. In a lot of new buildings, the first tenants are rodents,” he says.)
So how does a building become abandoned? “When there are empty buildings, it is generally because the property owner is aggregating contiguous properties for an assemblage, which can take years,” says Linda Alexander, a publicist and community board member. In some neighborhoods, such as Greenwich Village, the East Village and the Upper West Side, you’ll find the rare privately-owned single-family home that is fallow, usually due to ongoing legal issues concerning an estate, but in the current environment, it’s not the rule, it’s the exception, she says.
Also, as in the case of 539 Driggs Avenue, Williamsburg's so-called "spook house," sometimes the place only appears to be abandoned when, in fact, the owners have been in residence for years.
If you're worried about a particular structure in your neighborhood—say, an open, vacant or structurally compromised building; one where illegal dumping of garbage is occurring or a previously sealed building that appears to have been breached—you can file a complaint by calling 311 or visiting www.nyc.gov.
Sometimes, these stories do have happy endings. Consider the case of 222 East 13th Street which, according to neighborhood gossip and local blogs like EVGrieve, had been purchased by a nonprofit that, for various reasons, hadn't yet proceeded with renovations.
After a long wait, construction on the property, which was bought and is being renovated by Cooper Square Committee and the Ali Forney Center, recently began, and the project will soon house the Bea Arthur Residence, an 18-bed residence for LGBT teenagers and young adults.