Manhattan Community Board

This Old House Needs a Home

Ever since Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and other civic leaders, outraged over the demolition of the old Penn Station, inspired the city’s preservation laws, New York’s prized landmarked buildings have been fiercely protected, the slightest alterations to shingle or shutter subject to the closest scrutiny.

Nevertheless, said Roosevelt Island residents at the Oct. 17 meeting of Board 8, Blackwell House-a rambling gray clapboard farmhouse sitting just off Roosevelt Island’s Main Street-has proved an exception. One of the few remaining 18th-century farmhouses in New York City, the landmarked building, which has remained empty since November 1999, is a mess. It was built in 1794 by the Blackwell family and designated a city landmark in 1976, but residents say that the building, with peeling paint, a collapsing porch and a sagging roof, needs an immediate injection of at least $625,000 in repairs.

“It’s demolition through neglect,” said Elizabeth Ashby, co-chair of the board’s landmarks committee, at the Oct. 17 meeting.

Robert Ryan, president of the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation, the state agency that runs the island, says money is the issue. “Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation gets no funding from the city or the state; we generate all our revenues from the island,” Mr. Ryan told The Observer . The restoration, which he says would require up to six months to complete, has taken a back seat to other priorities, such as running the tram between Roosevelt Island and Manhattan, a money-losing operation that costs the island $1.7 million a year.

Residents say Roosevelt Island-leased by the city to the state of New York in 1969 for the creation of a residential community-is a neglected stepchild, frequently on the short end of the budget-appropriations stick, with neither city nor state wanting to dole out money for capital improvements.

The Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation’s efforts to gain outside funding for the restoration of Blackwell House have failed. A grant application submitted to the state’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation last year was turned down, even though the island pledged to cover half the restoration costs. The application was resubmitted this August.

Some island residents, however, say the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation’s efforts on behalf of Blackwell House have been too lethargic, amounting to little more than ineffective bureaucratic paper-pushing. “If you lease the house to a nonprofit and let them take care of it, they’ll certainly be able to come up with the funding to restore the house,” Judith Berdy, president of the Roosevelt Island Historical Society, told The Observer . “They [the RIOC] don’t know how to step aside and say, ‘Maybe we shouldn’t be in the historical-house business.'” Ms. Berdy, who has met over the years with numerous descendants of the original Blackwells, said several family members have expressed an interest in assisting with the restoration.

Mr. Ryan, meanwhile, says his agency is investigating potential future uses for the building-such as converting it into a meeting space for city and state agencies-but he is loathe to turn Blackwell House over to private hands. “The last guy, an interior designer, wasn’t paying his rent, and it took eight or nine years to get him evicted. Part of the reason the house deteriorated so much is because he wouldn’t let us in to do any repairs.”

At the Oct. 17 meeting, the board passed a unanimous resolution urging the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission to require the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation to secure the necessary restoration funding.

But the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which has jurisdiction over all landmarks on city property, says that because Blackwell House is on state-controlled property, there is little the agency can do.

“The Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation is not required to adhere to our requirements,” Teri Rosen Deutch, spokeswoman for the Landmarks Preservation Commission, told The Observer . “We have approached them on several occasions, and they’ve made it clear that they will not spend any money on historic preservation unless that work can be paid for by other development activities.”

– Petra Bartosiewicz

Health Force Formed To Address ‘Unthinkable’

The acrid air permeating lower Manhattan in the wake of the World Trade Center attack has instigated a rash of respiratory illnesses, raising concerns among residents and officials about the long-term effects, Board 2 members were told at their Oct. 18 meeting.

Citing reports from the Mt. Sinai Medical Center, the chairwoman of Board 2’s environment committee said the “irritant burden” from the fumes appears to have sparked a rise in sinusitis, asthma irritation and reactive airway disease. She said the fumes are now “a much more serious public-health concern than asbestos.”

Board members passed a resolution agreeing to form a task force to study all of the environmental hazards associated with the collapse of the Twin Towers and the still-burning steel and other debris.

The resolution included a vote of support for the Ground Zero Elected Officials Task Force, which includes Board 1, Representative Jerry Nadler, State Senator Tom Duane, City Council member Kathryn Freed and others. The group is researching the respiratory dangers of such airborne pollutants as asbestos, dioxin, metals and PVC’s, and has taken on the task of educating the public about ways to mitigate the effects of exposure-steps like restricting time spent out of doors, particularly when exercising; keeping windows closed; changing air filters; and taking one’s shoes off at the door.

But Board 2 also voted to call for an independent task force, which it hopes will include representatives from the city as well as private hospitals, occupational-health groups, labor unions and others from lower Manhattan, particularly from the West Village area.

The group sees itself as a conduit for public information, and it is planning to disseminate the latest public-health advice to the community. Further, it hopes to create a source for information should new public-health hazards emerge in the days ahead.

“We really want to address the unthinkable, just as the World Trade Center thing was an unthinkable,” Ms. Arlen told The Observer . “And so we were thinking, we need to be opening the frame of view wider and taking into account that we’re not going to anticipate everything.”

– Benjamin Ryan

Cancer Center Construction to Start

Harlem is months away from getting its own state-of-the-art cancer treatment and prevention center, a representative from North General Hospital told Board 11 at the Oct. 16 meeting.

The center is a joint venture between internationally renowned Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, North General, and designer and longtime cancer activist Ralph Lauren, whose company donated $5 million in June 2000 to get the project started.

“It’s an attempt to bring a major hospital like Sloan-Kettering into Harlem so patients can be cared for in their own community,” said Dr. Harold Freeman, chairman of President Bush’s cancer panel and medical director of the new center.

The idea for the center sprang from 20 years of studies showing wide disparities between blacks and whites in cancer detection and survival rates. The center will provide Harlem residents with screening tests, education and care for many types of cancer. It will also shepherd its patients through the complexities of the health-care system via an initiative called Patient Navigators, a system pioneered by Dr. Freedman, the longtime head of the Breast Examination Center of Harlem at nearby Harlem Hospital.

The Ralph Lauren Center for Cancer Prevention and Care, as it will be called, will likely occupy the ground floor of a co-op on 124th Street and Madison Avenue. Dr. Freedman said he is awaiting the go-ahead from the Public Health Council in Albany, which must approve all medical construction projects. That approval may come as early as November, he said, and construction will take about six months.

– Blair Golson

Manhattan Community Board