Hotel Chelsea Tenants Told Not to Call Fire Department

By Mathew Katz on February 9, 2012 4:41pm 

The landmark Hotel Chelsea on West 23rd Street.
The landmark Hotel Chelsea on West 23rd Street.
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Flickr/andrewmalone

CHELSEA — The Hotel Chelsea has a new rule for its tenants: If you see something, don't say something.

In at least two incidents in the past four months, staff at the landmark West 23rd Street building have told worried tenants not to call the fire department, even when their apartments were filled with the smell of smoke.

On Jan. 26, 86-year-old Alice Vulcan awoke to the smell of smoke in her sixth-floor apartment along with her daughter, Ellen Garretson. Garretson said a strong burning smell was coming from the hallway. Vulcan called the front desk, which sent up two hotel staff members. 

"They said, 'Don’t call the fire department,'" Garretson said. "They were adamant about me not calling. They told me I’d get a fine for false alarm."

Garretson, who often has to stay at the hotel to take care of her ailing mother, said the smell eventually went away after hotel staffers went into one of the many padlocked rooms that are under renovation.

"My concern is a lot of the rooms are padlocked, I don’t know what’s in those rooms," Garretson said. "My guess is there are [Department of Housing Preservation and Development] violations behind those doors."

The fire department was never called, according to court documents.

HPD records show the hotel currently has 107 open violations — ranging from failing to provide adequate heat to broken windows and floorboards — many of which were filed after extensive renovations to the iconic building began in September. 

In November, a similar incident occurred when pipes burst in shafts containing electric equipment, tenants said. Zoe Pappas, who heads up a tenants' association at the hotel, said the hotel's staff tried to stop her from calling the fire department.

"I told them very simply: 'Back off,' she said. "There's been a bunch of fires in the Chelsea, so people — especially people living here a long time — are very worried."

Pappas and other tenants ultimately called the fire department and filed a complaint with the Department of Buildings, which has since been resolved.

Accounts of the Jan. 26 incident were documented in a legal brief filed in housing court by Janet Ray Kalson, a lawyer representing many of the tenants, as part of an ongoing case against the hotel's new owner, Joseph Chetrit.

"There are serious fire hazards at the building, and respondents' agents have discouraged tenants from calling the Fire Department to report these hazards," the court documents, filed Feb. 6, state.

According to those documents, after the January incident, Pappas complained to a staff member at the front desk, who said the hotel's log had recorded smoke but claimed that it was coming from outside.

Kalson wrote that Pappas had communicated her concerns about tenants being discouraged from calling the fire department to the hotel's lawyer, Fred Daniels, but got no response.

Daniels did not immediately return calls for comment.

The brief also points to recently discovered asbestos in one of the building's shafts, and claims the current conditions in the hotel "constitute an emergency or danger to the life, health and safety of tenants."

Garretson said her main concern is the safety of people living in the hotel — and if she smells or sees smoke again, she won't hesitate to call the fire department. 

"I’m not going to let myself or my mother or the tenants die," she said.

Both parties are expected to meet in housing court on Tuesday.

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