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Renovation of Buckingham Hotel Makes Life a 'Nightmare' for Elderly Tenants

By Jill Colvin | December 22, 2011 7:27am
The view from one angry resident's apartment door.
The view from one angry resident's apartment door.
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DNAinfo/Jill Colvin

MIDTOWN — A partial stop-work order has been lifted on Midtown’s Buckingham Hotel, where a handful of elderly residents say their lives are being made miserable by disruptive renovations that they claim are making them sick.

Less than a dozen remaining long-time tenants at the West 57th Street hotel have rejected repeated attempts by successive owners to buy them out of their rent-stabilized apartments as the hotel undergoes a top-to-bottom renovation.

But while the group knew they’d face disruption during the two-year overhaul, they say the situation has been a nightmare, with frequent flooding, broken pipes, disruptive noise, and respiratory problems they blame on high levels of toxic dust.

Resident Barbara Wagner said she was given this hard hat to protect her from dangling wires as she walks into and out of the building,
Resident Barbara Wagner said she was given this hard hat to protect her from dangling wires as she walks into and out of the building,
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DNAinfo/Jill Colvin

“We’ve just been living in hell,” said long-time tenant Barbara Wagner, 63, who moved into the Buckingham 30 years ago and, like others, said she rejected a buyout because it would be impossible for her to find another place she could afford to live in nearby.

Today her apartment is suffering from water-damage. Plaster peels from walls and a layer of dust coats every surface, from the VCR to the wooden floors. Outside, the hallway is a construction zone, with hanging wires, gutted walls and a dumpster filled with chunks of drywall left in front of the elevator bank.

“There could have been a way to handle this differently,” she said, before showing off a hospital mask and a hard-hat given to her for protection after she was whacked in the head by an electrical cable hanging in her hallway.

Another tenant, Audrey, 74, who has lived in the building for nearly 30 years but declined to give her last name, said in addition to the mess and constant drilling, she’s had to deal with several floods in her eighth-floor apartment since the renovations began.

Days after crews started working, she said she was sitting in her living room reading when a gaping hole suddenly broke through her kitchen ceiling.

“All you saw was this gray sludge coming out of the hole, down the kitchen wall, onto the counter... It’s a nightmare,” she said.

She also blamed the renovations on a recently-developed cough, as well as chest congestion and difficulty breathing.

"I didn’t expect to be feeling like I’m feeling physically. This is a shock to me," she said.

A spokesman for UBS Realty Investors, who confirmed one of its clients owns the building but refused to say which, declined to comment on complaints.

101 West 57th Street Hotel Investors LLC, which Department of Finance records show purchased the hotel for $60 million in June, 2010, did not return repeated calls for comment over several days.

But while numerous city agencies have inspected the property and levied several fines, they say there have been no major health or safety violations to date.

The Department of Health, for instance, has received 11 complaints about air quality in the building since the beginning of April, said a spokeswoman for the agency,

After an inspection last Friday, the department issued an advisory with several recommendations, including asking the owners to clean and stop workers for using the tenant elevator, which is marked for "tenant use only." It asked them to put up plastic sheeting to prevent dust from spreading between construction areas and residential spaces where there are no doors

The Department of Environmental Protection also slapped the building with four violations for failing to follow asbestos abatement rules, including employing uncertified workers, failing to post warning signs and failing to use protective plastic sheets, though a spokeswoman said none of the infractions posed an immediate health risk.

The Department of Buildings has also received 20 complaints about the building since June, according to department records. While most did not lead to violations, a partial stop-work order was issued last week for failing to keep scaffolding inspection records. That order was rescinded Tuesday after a re-inspection and after owners paid a $5,000 fine.

But residents, unconvinced by the findings, commissioned their own environmental and safety report in April from Olmsted Environmental Services — the same group that recently published a report on the Hotel Chelsea, where residents have made similar health and safety complaints.

The report, which analyzed samples taken in public hallways, stairwells and accessible construction areas, found asbestos and lead mixed in with dust as well as excessive levels of crystalline silica, a lung irritant and potential carcinogen, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The report recommended an immediate, thorough cleaning, as well as the use of HEPA air scrubbers to filter the air, better use of plastic sheeting,  and an immediate asbestos abatement project, which is now underway.

The residents have also hired an attorney, David Hershey-Webb, who has repeatedly asked the owner to take more proactive measures to control the dust and said residents are considering legal action if conditions don’t improve.

“Everybody understands that when there’s renovations in the buildings, there’s going to be certain inconveniences,” he said.  “[But] they’re required to [do this work] in a way that does not put the health and safety of tenants living in the building at risk.”

Sylvia Ader, 95, a former actress who made appearances in several Woody Allen movies and has  lived on the third floor of the building for decades, said that, after months of blocked views, leaking pipes and poor air quality, she just wants the hassle over soon.

“I hope that things will be better later on when the dust is done and they start building instead of breaking down," she said.