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Morris Heights Non-Profit Under Fire

May 8, 2008

A non-profit in Morris Heights, whose job it is to manage 10 area apartment buildings, is in such financial strife that it can no longer afford to maintain its apartments, pay the superintendents, or keep up with bills, say those with knowledge of the organization.

Whether Bronx Heights Neighborhood Community Corporation’s troubles should be put down to gross incompetence or something more sinister is unclear. But HPD, the city agency that owns the buildings and that authorizes Bronx Heights to collect the rent, sees something amiss: they’ve started legal proceedings against the group.

On May 7, Community Board 5 held a meeting with HPD, Con Edison, tenants, and representatives of Bronx elected officials, to address what CB5′s district manager Xavier Rodriguez is calling “a crisis.”

Bronx Heights

This reporter visited several of Bronx Heights’ buildings to see firsthand the scope of the problem.

At 62-66 W. Tremont Ave., Bronx Heights’ largest building, tenants said the super was doing the best he could. But they complained about rats in their apartments; intermittent heat and hot water; and about management’s reluctance to help without repairs. “They [the management company] don’t fix nothing, it gets you frustrated,” said tenant Kha Mohammad.

As it stands, 62-66 is carrying substantial debt. The building’s water bill, for example, hasn’t been paid since September 2003, and comes in at a whopping $336,000. Bronx Heights has also missed oil payments – hence the interruptions in heat and hot water. In March, HPD started providing emergency fuel to 62-66 along with five other Bronx Heights buildings, said an HPD spokesperson.

At 1702 and 1694 Davidson Avenue, the situation seems especially precarious. On May 7, Con Edison cut off the electricity in the corridors and stairwells. The hot water was also turned off. As of noon on May 8, none of these services have been restored. Juan Fernandez, the buildings’ superintendent, said it’s been difficult for him perform his duties recently, because Bronx Heights hasn’t been supplying the necessary materials. He added that he hasn’t been paid for six weeks, because his bi-weekly check keeps bouncing. “I have a family [to look after] – four daughters,” he said.

Super

Further complicating the crisis at Bronx Heights, is a bitter feud between three of the newer board members and longtime board member, Gloria DevineBhutta.

The newer members – Monica McDermott, Dorothy Williams, and Maureen Chung – all want DevineBhutta gone.

When McDermott, the volunteer treasurer, joined Bronx Heights in January, she was amazed to find the buildings’ accounts all but empty, she says. “It was absolutely incredible,” she said. “Somewhere, funds have been misappropriated.”

The women stop short of accusing DevineBhutta of stealing money, but they’ve made it clear they don’t trust her. And in April, they tried to remove her from the board by saying she’d broken the organization’s bylaws by hiring a paid member of staff behind their backs.

DevineBhutta refused to leave and has taken it upon herself to hire a new board. – one that doesn’t include McDermott, Chung, and Williams. She’s also changed the locks to the office, so that only she can get in, and given herself the title of “volunteer executive director.” (The organization only has two paid office staff. Most responsibilities, therefore, fall to volunteers.)

DevineBhutta, who wasn’t invited to the May meeting, didn’t respond to several requests for comment. But one of the supers, Mohammad Bhutta (no relation, he says), insists she’s got the best interests of the organization at heart.

“It’s only Ms. Bhutta that’s looking out for the good of this agency,” Bhutta said, adding that a few “bad apples” are trying to destroy it.

But it’s not just Bronx Heights’ board members who are questioning DevineBhutta’s integrity. In November last year, Bronx Heights’ then accountant, Ramjit Hemraj, wrote a strongly worded letter to DevineBhutta saying: “I do not know the reason why you are withholding current year records… your bookkeeping records must be up-to-date in order for Bronx Heights Neighborhood Community Corp. to survive.”

At last week’s meeting, HPD agreed to begin paying the buildings’ electricity bills. “We will step up to the plate,” said HPD’s Gary Sloman, until the legal proceeding are resolved. But that’s all that was agreed upon. Sloman said that HPD can’t determine disputes over who is, and who isn’t, the real board at Bronx Heights.

CB5′s Rodriguez, for his part, just wants to see services returned to these buildings. “We have 276 innocent tenants who don’t know what’s going on,” he said. “It has reached crisis proportions.”

By JAMES FERGUSSON of the Mount Hope Monitor

Concerns Over St. Barnabas Project Eased

May 8, 2008

An April 10 community meeting afforded Mount Hope residents an opportunity to express their concerns and ask questions about the controversial construction project at 2050 Grand Concourse, where St. Barnabas Hospital is building an out-patient facility.

Most in attendance thought the meeting went well. However, it seems some are still unhappy with the project. The following day, a protest was held outside the construction site, in which protesters threatened workers, say police.

St. Barnabas began demolishing the building currently at the location – an abandoned Elks Lodge – in early March. Over the past few months, the project has been a controversial topic for a number of local residents. Galvanized by the perceived lack of communication between St. Barnabas and the community, locals have demanded the hospital share information about the project.

The matter reached a boiling point at Community Board 5′s March meeting, during which residents shouted insults at the Board for their alleged complicity in the lack of information sharing. “My problem is with Community Board 5 and how they’ve interacted with the public,” said Cathy Coleman, a resident of Morris Avenue. “We had no public hearing.”

At the meeting, residents also broached the subject with Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum, who was in attendance. In response, Gotbaum’s office organized the April 10 meeting at St. Simon Stock Church. “We set up the meeting because we felt these people had the right to know what was going on in their neighborhood,” said Daniel Ilan Radin-Contreras, Gotbaum’s Bronx community liaison. St. Barnabas Hospital

There were about 12 representatives from St. Barnabas in attendance, while only 10 community residents were present. CB 5 did not send a representative to the meeting.

The evening started with an open discussion, in which residents were allowed to question St. Barnabas.

“My major concern is that we were not informed about the destruction,” said Victoria Gambino of 2060 Grand Concourse. Gambino raised questions about the removal of asbestos from 2050 Grand Concourse, the constant trickle of water off 2050 onto passing pedestrians, and a foreboding security net protruding from the site.

Some asked about potential damage to neighboring buildings, and the fact that St. Barnabas’ destruction permit had apparently expired.

“People are afraid anything could happen,” Gambino said.

Following this session, St. Barnabas was given the opportunity to respond. Susan Hayes, the president and CEO of Caldwell Wingate (CW), the construction company heading the project, gave a power-point presentation intended to dispel residents’ doubts.

“We are going to be living in your community for a while,” said Hayes. “We don’t want you to be unhappy.”

Hayes’ primary point was that the project has to meet citywide regulations. She added that because the departments of Housing and Buildings monitor every aspect of the project, residents were not in danger.

Hayes also specifically addressed residents’ questions. She explained that all of the asbestos had been removed from 2050 Grand Concourse in a safe manner. She claimed noise pollution would not be an issue because the site’s main generator was shrouded in a noise-reducing sheet. She also explained that CW had vibration monitoring that would ensure vibrations from construction are not damaging surrounding buildings.

Hayes conceded that mistakes had been made, especially in regard to the lapsed permit. “We made an administrative mistake,” said Hayes. However the issue was rectified and all the correct permits are now in order. Hayes also apologized for the water trickling off the site and said it would be resolved.

In anticipation of future problems or uncertainties, Caldwell Wingate has set up a Web site with information about the project. Hayes said that 2050grandconcourse.com will be updated every two weeks.

Hayes concluded by saying they hoped to finish destruction by the beginning of May. As of May 7, the Elks Lodge was almost entirely demolished.

“I was put at ease by her presentation,” said Gambino. “I was like, ok, I don’t have to worry about this. I’m ok with it now.”

Other residents shared Gambino’s sentiments, but deplored the poor turnout. “There should have been more residents here,” Coleman said.

Indeed, the next day, a protest was held outside 2050 Grand Concourse. According to Sgt. Mark Turner, threats were made to workers at the site. “Threats are unacceptable,” he said. “We will make arrests.”

Turner and others have speculated that the protesters were construction workers who wanted jobs. However, their identity could not be confirmed. Turner said an investigation was under way.

By CHRIS MATTHEWS of the Mount Hope Monitor

Beautifying Echo Park

May 8, 2008

Echo Park Richman (Echo) Park is the proud new owner of a magnolia tree.

The tree – currently blooming – was planted on April 11, close to the basketball court. “I think people appreciate it,” said the park’s keeper Brian Markey, adding that it’s already received a few compliments from local residents.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Echo Park used to be a popular hangout for drug addicts. And to an extent it still is: Markey often finds himself disposing of used syringes. But the Parks Department and community groups have worked hard to clean up the park and encourage people to use it. Upcoming events in Echo Park include a jazz festival on July 17 (6 p.m. to 8 p.m.) and Drug Free and Proud to Be Day on Aug. 16 (9 a.m. to 6 p.m.). Both are run by Mount Hope Housing Company.

By JAMES FERGUSSON of the Mount Hope Monitor

Teenagers Finish Masterpiece

May 8, 2008

Mural

More than 20 Bronx teenagers have spent two years designing and painting a mural of a basketball player – one that makes even Shaq look short.

The 25 by 13 foot masterpiece, now finished, was produced by youngsters enrolled in the Citizens Advice Bureau’s Adolescent Development Program.

On April 15, an unveiling ceremony was held at the organization’s community center at 1130 Grand Concourse, to celebrate the mural’s completion.

The mural is now on permanent display in the center’s gymnasium.

By JAMES FERGUSSON of the Mount Hope Monitor

Cheap Co-Ops Coming to Morris Heights

May 8, 2008

Rarely do the words “affordable” and “co-op” appear in the same sentence. But at 150 Featherbed Lane, a local development company is trying to turn conventional wisdom on its head.

Construction is under way to turn this former parking lot into a 48-unit apartment complex. Prices will start at $67,000 and rise to $223,000, a relative bargain by today’s standards.

“For too long, people have rented their futures,” said Mastermind Development’s president Radame Perez at a groundbreaking ceremony on April 17. “We believe in giving them the keys to own their futures.”

Groundbreaking

Mastermind, which owns a slew of properties and empty lots in the west Bronx, are calling the project “Washington Bridge View” – although “Sedgwick Houses View” might have been a more accurate name.

According to Mastermind, more than 50 percent of apartments will be reserved for local residents. Potential buyers must earn a household income of between $40,000 and $90,000. Those interested and eligible will be entered into a lottery.

Each unit comes with its own washing machine and dryer; several units have private terraces. There will be parking, and, on the first floor, retail space.

The idea for the building – which will boast energy-efficient heating and lighting systems and other “green” initiatives – came out of a conversation Perez’s father, Jose, had with Xavier Rodriguez, Community Board 5’s district manager, a few years back.

Rendering

Rodriguez told the elder Perez that the lot would be a great place for housing. “I want to thank Mastermind for listening,” said Rodriguez at the ceremony. “It means a lot for this community.”

Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion is helping finance the $18 million project. Speaking at the ceremony, Carrion – who once held Rodriguez’s job – said that Mastermind “believes in the Bronx.” Assemblywoman Aurelia Greene said she “can’t wait for it to be finished.”

“Everything is going to be just beautiful,” said longtime Morris Heights resident Kathy Speller.

And no one is disputing that. But affordable is always relative. And for many in Morris Heights – where the average salary hovers around $20,000 – even Mastermind’s co-ops remain sadly out of reach.

By JAMES FERGUSSON of the Mount Hope Monitor

Editor’s Note: Construction is expected to be finished in the fall of 2009. Those interested will be able to apply this fall, says Mastermind. To find out more, call the company at (718) 933-1353 or e-mail info@mastermindbxny.com.

Mess of the Month

May 8, 2008

Mess of the Month What’s going on at 175th Street and University Avenue? The signs – posted last year – promise new homes: “For Sale: Luxury 2 & 3 Family Houses. New Construction. (718) 441-7100.” But instead of a construction site, all we have is an overgrown and trash-filled lot, surrounded by broken wooden boards.

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