MORRISANIA — One quiet Sunday afternoon this month, Linda Kemp and her granddaughter strolled into the community room at Robert Fulton Terrace to store some water bottles in the refrigerator.
But as soon as Kemp pulled open the door to the room’s small kitchen, she froze.
Two beady eyes stared at her from atop the kitchen counter — they belonged to a giant rat.
“I turn around, I start screaming, I snatch my grandbaby by the back of her shirt and I’m hauling behind out this door,” Kemp said Tuesday. “I’m literally terrified.”
Rats have invaded the private housing complex at E. 169th St. and Third Ave., scurrying across the courtyard, parking lot, newly renovated garden and even into the building itself, where they creep through the laundry room, hallways and ceilings, residents say.
While an occasional rodent sighting outside the tower is hardly new, the pest problem has swelled into a plague since a mansion on an adjacent lot was demolished two years ago to make way for a new Bronx-Lebanon Hospital Center building, some residents say.
“Since they tore that down, [the rats] are everywhere,” said Annie Figueroa, who lives in Robert Fulton with her four children.
But the contractor hired by Bronx-Lebanon to build a new treatment facility where the mansion once stood, at E. 169th St. and Fulton Ave., says tenants’ litter problem, not the construction project, is to blame.
“It wasn’t because of the construction — the rats were there before,” said Jovana Ortega, assistant project manager for the contractor, Procida Realty & Construction Corp. “The problem is garbage.”
Each day at dusk the rats emerge in droves, “like they’re heading to work,” said Kemp, who is president of the tenant association.
The rats also appear during the afternoon, darting out of holes in the small hill between the construction site and the apartment building, or racing down the sidewalk beside the two lots, residents say.
Occasionally, some rats find their way into the tower.
Maria Williams was styling a client’s hair last year in the beauty salon on Robert Fulton’s ground floor when an eight-inch rat scampered across the tiles, she said. While onlookers screamed, the rat bolted into a box, allowing Williams to trap it.
Williams, who co-owns M&M Salon, said she sometimes spotted rats before construction began, but since the mansion was razed she now sees rodents “all day long.”
“Now they have nowhere to hide, so they’re all coming down" from the construction site, she said.
The mansion was leveled in the fall of 2010.
Before then, the red-brick residence — which John Eicher, a Bronx brewery owner, built in the 19th century — was used by Bronx-Lebanon as a mental health center.
The old building is being replaced by a new 56,000-square-foot facility for substance abuse treatment, called the Life Recovery Center, which is expected to open next year.
Before Procida demolished the mansion, it hired an exterminator to clear the site, as required by city law, Rich Rendos, a Procida consultant, said Tuesday.
The company continued to pay for an exterminator around the site and Robert Fulton even after demolition finished and construction began, Rendos said.
“We did it as a service for social responsibility to the neighborhood,” he said, adding that their contract with Bronx-Lebanon did not require them to provide an exterminator after demolition.
But this spring, Procida stopped funding an exterminator for Robert Fulton after it decided that piles of garbage bags and trash around the complex were triggering the rat infestation, not the construction project, Rendos said.
“There’s tons of nests on their property,” he said, adding, “At one point we said, ‘It’s not our problem.’”
A spokesman for Bronx-Lebanon said Wednesday that the hospital shares residents’ concerns about the rats and has asked the contractor to address them.
“The contractor has assured us that they will be vigorously addressing the problem,” through pest control, frequent inspections and speaking to tenants about proper garbage disposal, said spokesman Errol Schneer.
Schneer would not say whether extermination services were included in the hospital’s contract with Procida. He said he was not aware that Procida had suspended those services since the spring.
The company that manages Robert Fulton, Levites Realty Management, did not return several phone calls, but tenants say the company has paid for its own exterminator to periodically visit the complex.
Kemp, the tenant leader, said that no matter who does it, someone must get rid of the rats.
“More needs to be done, whether it’s by management, Bronx-Lebanon or the city,” she said. “Does somebody have a solution?”