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Residents Fight Plan to House Disabled Patients Next to Sanitation Depot

By Amy Zimmer | May 10, 2012 7:31am
Goldwater Hospital will be shutting down over the next 18 months, officials said.
Goldwater Hospital will be shutting down over the next 18 months, officials said.
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DNAinfo/Amy Zimmer

EAST HARLEM — A plan to move senior and disabled residents to a facility next to a sanitation garage that neighbors say is plagued by noise, pollution and an overbearing stench has East Harlem residents furious.

For decades, complaints have been lodged against the garage on East 99th Street, across from Metropolitan Hospital.

But potential tenants at the $52 million, 10-story building planned for space next to the garage — patients being displaced from Roosevelt Island’s Goldwater Hospital — are eager for an accessible and affordable place where they can live independent lives. 

The proposed building would offer just that, according to its developer SKA Marin.

East Harlem and Goldwater residents shared their concerns at a public hearing Wednesday night at Metropolitan Hospital, where SKA Marin spokespeople described how the new facility, between First and Second avenues, would include chairs in showers, special call buttons in hallways and a fragrant garden to promote a communal feel.

Roughly 800 patients must be relocated from Goldwater over the next 18 months to prepare for the 9.9-acre nursing home and long-term rehabilitation center’s demolition. The hospital is closing as Cornell University gears up to build its tech campus on the southern end of Roosevelt Island.

The Health and Hospitals Corporation plans to move a fraction of these patients into the building across from Metropolitan Hospital, where there would be 171 studio and one-bedroom apartments for residents who could receive community-based care.

Though Goldwater’s closure had been announced in 2010 — well before tech campus plans were made — its specific end date hadn’t been released, and many advocates and East Harlemites believe the school’s move is speeding up the time frame for the hospital’s relocation.

"This can’t be the best that HHC has to offer, that the city has to offer," said Jose Grajales, chairman of the community advisory board for Metropolitan Hospital.

"We’re talking about human dignity. We’re talking about hundreds of frail individuals, hundreds of disabled, next to a sanitation facility."

He asked HHC to take a step back, especially since several residents complained that they didn’t have enough input.

"Are we moving too quickly with this?" Grajales asked. "Let’s put our heads together so our most vulnerable are not just transplanted as an afterthought as part of a grand design."

East Harlem’s Community Board 11 issued a resolution last month opposing the project.

"The community has significant concerns about people living next to the sanitation garage," CB 11 Chairman Matthew Washington said.

"Vehicles are idling constantly.  We’d like to see that facility relocated before this project moves forward. We can’t be too quick with the health and safety of people living in our community."

Judith Berdy, a Roosevelt Islander who sits on the community advisory board for Goldwater, also blasted to location, calling it "unconscionable" to move patients not only next to the sanitation depot, but also to an area full of blocked off and detoured sidewalks because of the Second Avenue subway construction.

"I’m glad Cornell is coming," she said, "but in my heart, it kills me to see Goldwater leaving and that patients might not get the proper housing they deserve."

Susan Dooha, executive director of the Center for Independence of the Disabled, pleaded with opponents to reconsider, calling the project a "civil rights opportunity" and a chance to "pioneer" a change in housing for the disabled.

"As wonderful as a nursing facility may be, it’s not the same as living in your own home," where residents can control their own waking and sleeping times, their own eating schedules and so on, she said.

It’s rare for disabled people on fixed incomes to finds such housing, she said.

"There is only a tiny percentage of housing affordable for people with very low-income," Dooha said, "and only a tiny fraction of that is accessible."

Ryan Dugan, 50, a Goldwater resident who became paralyzed after a diving accident, said he didn’t care about idling trucks.

"I’ve been trying to get back in the community for the past three years," he said.  "I’d like to have my independence back by having my own apartment."

He dreamed of a living situation where he would only need help in the morning to be put in his wheelchair and in the evening to be taken out — rather than being in an institution or a nursing home.

Other Goldwater patients also believe the building could be a ticket to a better future.

"It’s been a very difficult time," said Goldwater resident Armand Xama, a 30-year-old who also became disabled from a diving accident.

He was worried about the upcoming closure.

"It puts us under a lot of pressure because we don’t know what’s going on with us," said Xama, who has an engineering degree that he hopes to one day use again.

"The main thing when it comes to being disabled is accessibility. It’s going to help us get back to work."

For Goldwater’s most serious patients, the former North General hospital will have 201 beds. Another 164 beds will be created there for the rehab patients, HHC officials said. The hospital is also working with supportive housing providers and community-based organizations to find patients housing.