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Community Leaders Balk at Plans for Hotel on Jerome

November 1, 2007

NYCity News Service

There’s lots to do on Jerome Avenue between East 174th Street and the on-ramp to the Cross Bronx Expressway. You can get your car windows tinted. You can purchase a used police cruiser. You can pimp out your rims. You can have a chicken, rabbit or rooster slaughtered, plucked, skinned and trussed. You can time how frequently the No. 4 train roars by on the tracks above. But if you’re worn out after all that activity, there’s no place to rest your head.

Prakashkumar Patel wants to change that. “They need a good hotel in the Bronx,” said Patel, who owns Marriotts, Hampton Inns and other chain hotels in Albany, on Long Island and near LaGuardia Airport. He purchased and demolished a car repair shop – one of many on the strip – at number 1665. And he plans to build a brick and granite Comfort Inn, complete with breakfast and meeting rooms and a parking lot in the rear. “It will bring up the value of the whole area,” he said.

Local leaders disagree. “To suggest that it could possibly be anything other than a hot-sheet motel is just so insulting to our intelligence,” said Jim Fairbanks, chief of staff to Council Member Helen Foster (D-Bronx). “From Maine to Florida, you could put up billboards advertising the opportunity to sleep next to a subway train. Next to a live poultry place? Give me a break.”

The hotel – planned on the site of a former synagogue – has been on hold for months as Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrión crusades against short-stay motels that attract unsavory activities. “The borough president’s office is working to ensure that this location is developed in a way that’s beneficial to the community,” said spokesman Mike Murphy.

Negotiations are ongoing for a community group to buy the property, according to Patel and local officials. Patel insists that between the cost of the land, the demolition and various other fees, he’s already out close to $3 million.

Jerome Avenue Hotel

Patel, who plans to charge guests $140 to $170 a night, contends the spot is a viable location for a hotel – one in which only legal activities will take place. He said the building, in the shadow of the el train, will have soundproofed windows and walls. Moreover, he believes the hotel will serve a genuine need. “With all the leisure and a lot of things going on in Manhattan all the time – I am right on [Interstate] 95,” he said. “Show me one good hotel around that area. For the community, for a wedding, there is nothing there.”

Opposition to the project may be particularly strong because of memories of the Jerome Motel, a grim, 37-room concrete block structure at 176th Street. Before police shuttered it in 1995, prostitutes openly solicited out front. Neighbors could hear the bellowing from a bullhorn used to rouse patrons who lingered past a three-hour limit. A social service agency took over the building and converted it into studio apartments for formerly homeless people.

The struggle against transient motels in the Bronx is not a thing of the past, however. A four-story hotel is now being completed in a desolate part of Hunts Point next to a junkyard and a boiler repair shop. This summer, Carrión asked the Department of Buildings to enact a moratorium on permits for hotels outside of central business districts until zoning laws can be changed.

But as the law currently stands, Patel is free to build a hotel on his Jerome Avenue property, and is losing patience with the negotiations. “It looks like there are politics involved,” he said. “If I am going to wait I am going to go bankrupt and I am going to sue all of them.”

Mount Hope Housing Company to Benefit from Citgo Grant

November 1, 2007

NYCity News Service

Nov. 2007 - Saving a few hundred dollars on heating oil is no small thing for a single mother of three scraping by on a social worker’s salary. Thanks to a Citgo Corporation heating oil discount program, Camille Pow has stashed away some much needed cash the last two winters.

“I got a deduction of $26 to $30 every month last year, which means $300 more you can look for in your pocket,” said Pow, 45, who rents one of the 1,250 apartments owned by Mount Hope Housing Company, which receives a 40 percent discount on oil from Citgo, then passes the savings on to tenants through rent breaks.

Now the two-year-old program could potentially benefit Pow (pictured with her family) and other low- and moderate-income residents of the 32-building complex in ways they never expected.

Citgo’s social service arm is backing plans for a new tenants advocacy system – as well as supporting community programs, including one that will train Mount Hope tenants as licensed childcare workers, so that parents have somewhere to leave their kids.

The oil giant’s relationship with the Bronx began two years ago with a visit from controversial Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Citgo, the Houston-based American subsidiary of Venezuela’s national oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela, has been distributing discounted heating oil to needy households across a swath of northern states since 2005.

The heating oil program is tentatively scheduled for re-launch once the cold weather returns, said Citgo spokesperson Fernando Garay.

But the next phase of the program – inspired by Chavez’ Venezuelan social policies – goes far beyond below-market-rate oil.

Each of Mount Hope’s buildings will be represented by one or two tenants, who will serve as resident advocates, as part of what building administrators are calling the Community Ambassadors Program.

The program bears a resemblance to local governance policies that Chavez and Petroleos de Venezuela have instituted in Venezuela and in other countries that receive Venezuelan oil, Garay said.

Rep. Jose Serrano (D-Bronx), who escorted Chavez during his 2005 visit to the Bronx, is a big supporter of the program. While there has been some criticism over accepting aid from Chavez due to his hard-left leanings and his fiery language (last year, he referred to President George W. Bush as “the devil”), Serrano has no problem with a company cutting low and middle-income communities a break.

“The Citgo heating oil program over the last two winters has been a success in the Bronx, providing residents with rent reductions and building improvements,” said Serrano in an email.

“People who criticize this program because of its linkage to Venezuela and President Chavez are missing the point,” he added. “The program serves low-income people struggling to make ends meet and serves them well. There is no shame in a political agenda which helps the poor to lead a better life in any nation.”

Pamela Babb, Mount Hope’s vice president of development and communications, recalled a 2006 trip to Venezuela that proved pivotal in Chavez’ bid to go beyond cheaper oil distribution – and get involved in American anti-poverty programs.

“We got a chance to talk to Chavez for two days,” said Babb, who traveled with a group of U.S. tenants and housing advocates. “We were invited to the presidential quarters [in Caracas] so he could meet everyone and talk about why the oil program was so beneficial.”

“Chavez asked one tenant, ‘What are your circumstances?’” Babb recalled. “She said her finances were very tight, she had two children, and she had a hard time finding work. It was at that moment that Chavez said, ‘Hmmm, we have to do something about it.’ All the [government] ministers started writing.”

“Chavez said maybe there should be some economic development programs,” Babb added. “That’s how the second part of the program was decided. Just that woman explaining her situation.”

(Citgo has also awarded grants to eight other Bronx organizations including Youth Ministries for Youth & Justice, Rock the Boat, South Bronx Food Cooperative, and Servicio de Educación Básica.)

Brenda Jones, the Mount Hope employee who pitched the Community Ambassadors idea, sees a real need for social programs that require local involvement. “They’re very much into co-operatives in Venezuela,” said Jones. “Ideas that they use for countries in the South are applicable to low-income communities here in the North.”

“To design an intervention to do something about poverty, you have to have the participation of the people you’re trying to help,” she added.

Pow, who has lived in her apartment for 14 years, will be among the new ambassadors. She found a flyer for the program under her door recently, and called right away to volunteer.

“They haven’t divvied up the jobs yet, but I’ll be advocating for the building, representing it in a positive way,” Pow said. “I was like, wow, you know how long I’ve been waiting for something like this?”



Henwood Place: The ‘Party Block’

November 1, 2007


According to Christine Campbell, Henwood Place used to be a quiet cul-de-sac. But all that changed last year, she said, when a 14-story apartment complex shot up in a parking lot across the street from where she lives.

Campbell calls 115 Henwood Place a “monstrosity” because it dwarfs everything else in the neighborhood. The second tallest building on the block, a slip of a street between Walton Avenue and the Grand Concourse near 176th Street, is just six stories high.

Yet it’s not the building’s size that has riled Campbell and many of her neighbors; it’s the behavior of its tenants. In the summer, residents of both 111 and 116 Henwood Place (where Campbell lives) sent a six-page letter to the Bronx Borough President, the Mayor’s Office, and local elected officials, detailing their grievances.

Tenants of 115 Henwood Place, the letter said, drink alcohol and smoke marijuana on the nearby step street; play loud music until late at night; shout and yell profanities; intimidate local residents; and fail to control their children, who run wild, and randomly buzz the intercom systems of nearby buildings for amusement.

“Our lives, I feel, have been turned upside down,” said Campbell, one of several Henwood Place residents who took their complaints to the 46th Precinct’s September Community Council meeting. “People are scared. We’ve never had to deal with this on our block before.”

“The block is not what it used to be,” added another 116 Henwood Place resident. “The kids sit on the hoods of our cars and the grown-ups sit on the steps [of the step street] making noise and smoking their weed… there’s a lot of nasty stuff going on.” He wouldn’t give his name: “I don’t want nobody to target me.”

Ismael Fernandez, the owner of 115 Henwood Place, admits things got out of control in the hot summer months, when everyone hit the streets, and opened the fire hydrants to cool down. But he thinks his building is being unfairly singled out, and that other area residents were equally, if not more, culpable.

Fernandez says he’s fed up with hearing rumors about his tenants. “I even heard people were saying they were selling drugs,” he said. “I mean, come on, there’s 24-hour security. If there’s a drug free building in the Bronx it’s this one.”

Security is tight at 115 Henwood Place. A guard sits in the lobby day and night, ensuring tenants sign in and out. There’s a curfew: tenants have to be inside by 10 p.m. in the week, 12 a.m. at the weekend. And, in a surveillance operation that would make civil liberties groups weep, 62-security cameras monitor every corridor, as well as the courtyard and street.

The 44 apartments inside 115 Henwood Place are high-end. Each boasts a granite kitchen and a marble bathroom, said a proud Fernandez, who’s becoming quite a fixture in the neighborhood – he also owns the building at Walton Avenue and 176th Street, which houses the Key Food store, and the luxury rental apartments above.

Fernandez rents his Walton Avenue apartments one-by-one on the open market. But with 115 Henwood Place, he took at a different approach, and turned the property over to the Department of Homeless Services (DHS), who use it as a transitional residence for homeless families.

For Fernandez, it was financially sound decision. His new building has full-occupancy. And with the city paying his tenants’ rent, he doesn’t have to chase people for money. “If I had 20 buildings like this, I do the same,” he said, with a grin.

Campbell, needless to say, doesn’t share Fernandez’s enthusiasm. She thinks the community has been deceived.

As Campbell tells it, during the construction phase a sign was put up advertising luxury apartments. But when the building was finished, she said, DHS vans began showing up in the dead of night. Before anyone knew it, 115 Henwood Place was up and running, giving no one the opportunity to voice concerns.

Campbell says she has nothing against homeless people. “This isn’t about bashing people living in a shelter,” she said. “It’s just a different lifestyle. People who work and don’t work shouldn’t live together.”

As the weather turns cooler, Henwood Place has become quieter. Fewer people are loitering on the step street. The curfews are being enforced; the cookouts have stopped. The block is cleaner, too. But Campbell – who never did get a reply to the letter she and her neighbors sent out to elected officials – isn’t going to hang around. “We call this the ‘party block,’” she said. “I can’t relax here anymore… so I’m moving to North Carolina.”