complex situation

Ex-Gov. Paterson Embroiled in Battle Over His Famed Harlem Home

Former Gov. David Paterson speaks at his portrait unveiling at the State Capitol building in Albany, March 2, 2014.
Former Gov. David Paterson speaks at his portrait unveiling at the State Capitol building in Albany, March 2, 2014. Photo: New York State Governor’s Office/Flickr

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While some neighbors brace to fight plans to supersize Harlem’s storied Lenox Terrace apartments, one notable tenant — former Gov. David Paterson — is linking arms with the landlord and its lobbyists.

New construction within the complex, bordered by West 132nd and 135th streets and Lenox and Fifth avenues, would add five towers and 1,600 apartments to the existing 1,700 units in six buildings. Former Rep. Charles Rangel is also among current Lenox Terrace residents, many of them hanging onto rent-stabilized apartments in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.

Paterson sent a letter last week inviting recipients to join him on a “Lenox Legacy Committee” that will highlight the 1958 development’s history through “physical commemoration” and an oral history program.

“There is an effort underway for The Olnick Organization to reinvest in and update the property,” he wrote in the Sept. 4 letter, printed on letterhead from Touro College, where he teaches. “This creates a real opportunity to memorialize and celebrate the enduring legacy of Lenox Terrace.”

A public review process is now underway, with Harlem’s Community Board 10 preparing to consider the Olnick expansion plan at a Sept. 19 land use committee meeting, a board representative said. The full board will later take an advisory vote.

Paterson’s letter ends with sign-up information for those interested in joining his committee and notes, “in the coming days, you will hear from Keith Tubbs who will be able to answer any questions you might have and share additional information about next steps.”

Lobbying Firm Enlisted

Tubbs is among a 13-person team from “government relations and strategic consulting” firm Capalino+Company hired for $11,000 per month by Lenox Terrace Development Associates, city lobbying records show. City Planning records indicate Lenox Terrace Development Associates is an affiliate of the Olnick Organization, Inc.

Via email, Tubbs told THE CITY he is “helping to facilitate” the Legacy Committee, and will bring its recommendations to Olnick.

Records indicate that last year, Capalino lobbyists targeted Councilmember Bill Perkins (D-Harlem), who will have a decisive say on the project when it comes before the City Council for a vote.

Perkins spoke out against previous versions of the building proposal, calling a 2014 plan for six towers “not in the best interest of the Harlem community.” But he’s been mum on the latest iteration. Calls and emails to his office went unanswered.

Paterson, too, has been a target of lobbying by the Olnick Organization on the expansion project — in 2005, while serving as state Senate minority leader, according to a review of then-available public records by The New York Times.

Donations and More

Through a spokesperson, Paterson said he is not for or against the Olnick plan, is not being paid by the development group and does not speak for Touro College. The letter was sent by mistake from the college letterhead, he and a Touro representative said.

Sean Darcy, the Paterson spokesperson, said the former governor considers the Olnick plan as a way to help fund a commemorative project where many of Harlem’s leaders have lived — including Paterson’s father, longtime New York politician Basil Paterson, and former Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton.

“He thought [Olnick] should put some money into it,” said Darcy, adding the former governor has led preservation projects throughout his career, including the African Burial Ground National Monument in Lower Manhattan.

Paterson’s political committees took at least $10,500 in donations from The Olnick Organization and the Olnick family in the 2000s, campaign finance records show.

The donations “have no bearing whatsoever on his thinking,” Darcy said, pointing out that Paterson raised more than $20 million throughout his political career. Paterson, who became governor after his boss Eliot Spitzer resigned amid a scandal, retired from politics after his stepping aside for now-Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2010.

In 2008, Paterson told The New York Sun he paid $1,250 monthly for a two-bedroom Lenox Terrace apartment.

Charles Rangel attends a Martin Luther King Day ceremony at the National Action Network headquarters in Harlem.
Charles Rangel attends a Martin Luther King Day ceremony at the National Action Network headquarters in Harlem. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Other current Lenox Terrace residents include NAACP leader Hazel Dukes and Rangel — who, The New York Times revealed in 2008, leased four rent-stabilized apartments there and used one as a campaign office.

Rangel lost the powerful helm of the House Ways and Means Committee amid the ensuing flap. After an ethics panel 2010 found Rangel guilty of 11 violations, members voted to censure him.

Reached by phone at home on Tuesday, Rangel said, with his trademark wit, that he had no opinion on Olnick’s development plan.

“Whatever they intend to do is going to take 10, 15, 20 years,” he said. “I’m 89 years old and I don’t buy green bananas.”

Concerns About Construction

Tenant leader Kaloma Cardwell, who has been working to get information for his neighbors about the planned expansion, called Paterson’s letter a “dangerous distraction.”

Among the questions residents are asking, according to Cardwell: How will the new buildings affect light and air? Will construction dust make the tenants sick? How will Olnick address security on the property? Will new green space be open to the public?

“No one is saying, what Lenox Terrace residents need — what Central Harlem residents need — is additional ‘commemorative space,’” he said, while outside the complex on Tuesday with his 10-month-old daughter. “It’s almost insulting.”

Kaloma Cardwell leads a tenant association at the Lenox Terrace apartment complex in Harlem, Sept. 10, 2019.
Kaloma Cardwell leads a tenant association at the Lenox Terrace apartment complex in Harlem, Sept. 10, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Lenn Shebar, the president of LT-ACT, the tenant association for all six of Lenox Terrace’s buildings, declined to comment specifically on Paterson’s letter. But the group’s members are adamantly opposed to the Olnick rezoning plan — and have been since more than a decade ago, when the owner first floated ideas for redeveloping the site.

“We’re consistent in our opposition to any plans to rezone,” Shebar said. The group is organizing to push for no votes from all public figures set to weigh in on the land use changes needed by Olnick.

“It’s all about saying no,” Shebar said. “No, no, no, all the way down, from the community board to [the City Planning Commission] to, ideally, the mayor, as well.”

Concessions to Critics

Olnick emphasized it has incorporated feedback from tenants in its latest plan, including reducing the height of the proposed buildings and the number of new towers from six to five.

In a statement, Olnick spokesperson Tom Corsillo said the owner is “excited to continue this important dialogue as the public review process unfolds.”

“The proposed plan is the result of many years of speaking with and incorporating feedback from residents, and will ensure an important part of Harlem’s legacy continues for generations to come,” he said.

But multiple Lenox Terrace residents told THE CITY they aren’t satisfied with what’s on tap for the complex, built as a “Slum Clearance” plan spearheaded by Robert Moses 60 years ago.

Lynette Holloway, a tenant since 2015, said she worried about a “poor door”-like situation for current residents, whose entrances would be obscured by large, shiny new towers built right up against existing buildings.

And Delsenia Glover, a longtime tenant organizer in the complex, fears many rent-stabilized tenants and seniors will be pushed out.

“This is not going to benefit the people who currently live in the community. It’s going to make gentrification and displacement grow even faster,” she said.

Cardwell charged Paterson’s letter shows the former governor is out of touch with his neighbors.

“His voice is not consistent with people who are thinking about their grandmothers and their neighbors and their children,” Cardwell said. “It’s inconsistent with so many more important things.”

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