July 23, 2024

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Civil War for Chelsea Hotel as Tenants Split Over NYC’s Bid to Halt Upscale Conversion

As the owners of the legendary Chelsea Hotel fight the city’s housing agency for the right to convert the landmark into condominiums and high-end rooms, long-time residents are at odds with one another over their home’s fate.

Three pending lawsuits filed by residents on higher floors — the most recent in state Supreme Court on Sept. 26 — allege that owner Ira Drukier and partners have made rent-stabilized tenants miserable in hopes that they would move out of the Manhattan icon.

The latest suit, lodged by 10th-floor residents Susan and Jonathan Berg, accuses the owners of “an escalating campaign of deliberate, systematic and malicious harassment” with ongoing building renovations dragging on for years.

Yet downstairs neighbors say they are eager to see the upscale conversion reach completion — and resent the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development for thwarting the work. “I want to live in a nice place,” said longtime resident Ellen Garretson.

On Friday, a city administrative judge will resume a hearing in Drukier’s appeal of an HPD decision to deny the Chelsea Hotel a Certificate of No Harassment, a permit required whenever hotels and rooming houses undergo transformations.

If HPD prevails, the onetime haunt of musicians, artists and writers that included Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin — and most notoriously, Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols, who allegedly killed girlfriend Nancy Spungen there — will be stuck in limbo.

Under city policy, construction will have to cease, and the owners won’t be able apply for another certificate for three years.

Verbal Abuse Alleged

The Bergs are the second couple since September to sue the owners of the West 23rd Street hotel.

“It’s important that when people are treated the way that we’ve been treated that it’s known by the public,” said Susan Berg, 64, who’s resided in the hotel since 1988.

The Bergs’ lawsuit alleges that the owners ignored basic maintenance requests, including cleaning dust from construction and fixing a leaky ceiling, which led to flooding in the hallways of the 10th floor. Their heat, water, electricity and other essential services have been disrupted or discontinued at times, the suit charges.

The suit also claims that Drukier verbally abused the Bergs.

A construction worker inside the Chelsea Hotel.

A construction worker inside the Chelsea Hotel.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

In one instance in August 2019, Jonathan Berg accompanied HPD inspectors to go to the hotel’s roof to view a defective drain, which caused the leak on their floor. When Drukier appeared, the lawsuit alleges, he screamed at Berg, “I own the building, so go f—k yourself!”

A month later, Susan Berg was in the hotel’s lobby and speaking to the building’s manager, when Drukier approached and yelled at her, “Blah! blah! blah!” and “F—k you!” legal papers allege. That prompted the manager to step in between them and warn Drukier to stop, the suit says.

The Bergs are seeking damages and attorneys’ fees. “It’s just been years of tenants being harassed and really culminating in the last three-plus years,” Susan Berg told THE CITY.

Construction Halted

Artist Philip Taaffe and his wife, Gretchen Carlson, also sued the hotel owners last month, claiming their family of five was forced to leave after their water and electricity was shut off for two years during renovations, the New York Post reported. Another resident, Rita Barros, sued in December, alleging similarly poor living conditions.

All share the same attorney, Leon Behar. Court records shows a fourth suit was dismissed, but Behar is appealing the ruling.

A hallway inside the Chelsea Hotel, Sept. 30, 2020.

A hallway inside the Chelsea Hotel, Sept. 30, 2020.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“This should not be put up within the city of New York,” Behar told THE CITY. “It’s a systemic pattern of harassment in order for my clients to vacate.”

The owners, who bought the famously shabby building in 2016, have vehemently denied the harassment allegations. They said they have strived to accommodate tenants during renovations that have been slowed by multiple city Department of Building stop-work orders, including one partially halting construction currently.

“The construction is not meant to make the tenants leave,” Drukier said in a statement to THE CITY, which noted a 35% rent abatement “to compensate for the inconvenience of construction.”

He added: “The goal is to renovate this landmark building, as soon as possible for everyone’s benefit, including the tenants.”

Tenants inside the Chelsea Hotel try to protect their apartments from noxious particles from construction, Sept. 30, 2020.

Tenants inside the Chelsea Hotel try to protect their apartments from noxious particles from construction, Sept. 30, 2020.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The lawsuits come after an investigation by the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development, following the owners’ 2019 application for a certificate, that concluded tenant harassment occurred.

HPD’s finding led to an administrative hearing in a Manhattan court — which began in-person in March and resumed in a virtual courtroom last month — to determine whether the owner’s application for a Certificate of No Harassment will be approved despite the housing agency’s rejection.

At the March hearing, city officials described conditions that included a leaky ceiling, exposed electrical wires and lead-infused paint dust. The Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings case resumes virtually on Friday.

Seeking a Nicer Home

Meanwhile, the hotel largely remains a construction site, with workers donning hard hats hauling trash to dumpers in front of the building. Tenants deal with dusty floors, wires dangling from exposed ceilings and the clatter of power tools.

“I want it finished,” said Garretson, a 30-year resident of the hotel.

But she doesn’t blame the owners. She and some other tenants say they haven’t been treated poorly.

Garretson said Drukier has been nothing but accommodating to her, especially when her first-floor apartment flooded in 2017. Drukier put her up in a nearby hotel for three months while her apartment was renovated.

Chelsea Hotel tenant association leader Zoe Pappas blames HPD for renovation delays.

Chelsea Hotel tenant association leader Zoe Pappas blames HPD for renovation delays.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“He gave us a $60 stipend a day for food, which is more than I spend as a single person,” Garretson said, adding that Drukier reimbursed her for new furniture without asking for receipts.

Zoe Pappas, president of the Chelsea Hotel’s tenant association, is among the residents who fault HPD for holding up construction. Pappas wants the work done so tenants can enjoy the camaraderie that once existed in the hotel.

“There are people in the Chelsea who are 90 years old, 85, 87, so why don’t these people have the right to live the last of their years in a civilized environment?” Pappas said. “How dare HPD work against all of us.”

An HPD representative said that shielding tenants from harassment is its job.

“Protecting New York City tenants against harassment is a critical responsibility of HPD. As in this case, when the agency finds reasonable cause that harassment occurred, we take action,” Jeremy House, a spokesperson for HPD, said in a statement.