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City Approved Friends Seminary Renovation Despite Violation of Rules: DOB

By Noah Hurowitz | April 11, 2016 4:56pm
 Friends Seminary has been without a certificate of occupancy since July 2012.
Friends Seminary has been without a certificate of occupancy since July 2012.
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DNAinfo/Heather Holland

GRAMERCY — The Friends Seminary is in trouble again.

After the city approved more than a dozen work permits for the private school's controversial renovation project, it's now preparing to hit it with a violation for operating for the past four years without a valid certificate of occupancy — which is required for Friends to use the building as a school according to the Department of Buildings.

Friends Seminary — the $41,000-per-year Quaker school at 222 E. 16th St. — was already under the city’s scrutiny this year after it was discovered that eight allegedly fraudulent emails were sent to the Landmarks Preservation Commission, writing in support of the renovation plan. The commission ultimately approved the project last May.

The school's C of O permit expired in fall of 2006, and Friends had secured temporary permits up until July 23, 2012 but failed to get a valid one since then. But in the time since the permit expired, the Department of Buildings has approved 23 permits for the school's renovation work and has not issued any violations or fines.

"Permit issuance is not dependent upon C of O status," DOB spokesman Alexander Schnell wrote in an email to DNAinfo, adding that inspections of the building have not found any danger to students.

According to Wendy Levine, chair of the school's buildings and grounds committee, Friend's inability to get a proper certificate of occupancy stems from paperwork complications that arose after the school’s architect Margaret Helfand died in 2007.

Friends Seminary kept its temporary certificates valid for years after Helfand's death, until the last one expired in 2012.

A spokesman for the school, John Galayda, declined to discuss what changed after 2012 and said Friends is working with the city to get things in line.

"We are working with the Department of Buildings to address open items in order to finalize the renewal of our temporary CO,” Galayda said. “All work has been filed with DOB and our facilities have been inspected, meeting all required levels of safety. We are working internally and with DOB to complete the necessary paperwork in order for the TCO to be renewed."

Friends Seminary's renovation plan includes adding two floors across its three townhouses on 16th Street and the adjoining building known as Hunter Hall, as well as work to connect the four buildings. The townhouses all have a valid C of O, Hunter Hall does not.

The school is currently being probed by the Department of Investigation, according to Councilwoman Rosie Mendez, after a Freedom of Information request by neighbors revealed eight identical emails asking LPC to approve the renovation. The emails were signed by people claiming to live on the block who in fact lived nowhere nearby. Furthermore, five of those letter writers were found to be employed or previously employed by Luigi Caiola, a wealthy real-estate maven and Broadway producer who has two children who attend at the school.

Friends Seminary has distanced itself from the emails (while embracing Caiola, in a statement, as a "a beloved and respected member" of the school community).

According to Friends Seminary spokesman Galayda, the school found out about the fraudulent emails in January and immediately notified the city.

Since last year the school has also been in a protracted battle with neighbors, who say the construction will disrupt their lives and worry that the added height of the buildings would damage the historic character of the block, which is part of the Stuyvesant Square Historic District.

Because of its location in the district, the school successfully sought approval from LPC last year, getting approval after the Commission sent it back to the drawing board to make tweaks to its plans.