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An Outcry in Chelsea Over a 12-Story Shelter

An Outcry in Chelsea Over a 12-Story Shelter

The New York Times 5/23/2011


At an art opening in Chelsea last week, Erick Magangi stood next to the oil painting that he considered his best work. “I was trying to do an examination of the real world and the exotic world,” Mr. Magangi said, gesturing toward the work, an abstract with softly blended horizontal panels of beige and gray.

His round face was beaming under a fisherman’s cap. “It takes me back many years,” he said, “to when I used to step outside the house to watch the lake rise and fall.”

Mr. Magangi, who grew up in Kenya on the shores of Lake Victoria, hopes to soon put down roots in Chelsea, a couple of blocks from where his work is on display. He is not moving to one of the neighborhood’s luxury high-rises or town houses, but to a towering homeless shelter in a renovated building on 25th Street that is scheduled to open within a month.

He will live with hundreds of other homeless people, most struggling with addiction or mental illness, and some whose creations in art therapy classes are on display alongside his, at the TD Bank branch at 26th Street and Seventh Avenue.

Muzzy Rosenblatt, the executive director of the Bowery Residents’ Committee, which offers the art classes along with other services for the homeless, and which will run the new shelter, thanked the 20 or so visitors at the exhibit for “opening your minds and your eyes and your hearts to the work and seeing the humanity in what we do.”

But many in Chelsea are putting up a fight.

Two days later, on the first clear day of the week, about 40 neighborhood residents, informally known as Chelsea Moms, assembled behind police barricades around the corner from the bank, outside the office of Christine C. Quinn, the speaker of the City Council, whose district includes the shelter. They waved placards — “Chelsea moms for responsible and legal shelters” — and chanted, “No more illegal megashelters!” and urged Ms. Quinn to do more than she had to stop it.

Ms. Quinn has written several letters to administration officials objecting to the shelter based on its size.

The Chelsea Flatiron Coalition, another group organized to stop the shelter, filed a lawsuit in October saying that an environmental land use review was required and that the shelter violated administrative codes on maximum shelter size, said Christopher King, a lawyer for the city. Those issues are still pending, Mr. King said.

In a statement, Ms. Quinn’s office cited the lawsuit and said the city must wait until the court rules before moving ahead with occupancy.

The Bowery Residents’ Committee, whose leases in buildings on the Lower East Side recently expired, will occupy the 104,000-square-foot, 12-story building at 127 West 25th Street, assuming the courts do not intervene. The building, which was mostly vacant, will house a 200-bed shelter for men, a 96-bed reception center for men and women with mental illness and a 32-bed chemical dependency crisis center serving men and women.

With the city’s homeless population near all-time highs, the city and nonprofit groups working with homeless people have been meeting resistance in neighborhood after neighborhood as they try to open new shelters. The Bowery Residents’ Committee is also drawing protests in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, to its proposal to open a shelter by the Pulaski Bridge.

The building in Chelsea sits in the middle of a block of mostly commercial tenants: a quilt gallery, a vintage clothing shop that sells couture dresses, a couple of antiques shops and a coffee bar, along with several vacant storefronts. Offices and some residential units are on the floors above. High-rise apartment buildings and condos are on the adjacent avenues.

Gina Bach, a stylist at the Alfredo Ray Salon, nearby on West 25th Street, said she was not worried.

“I can’t imagine they will be all over the neighborhood like maniacs, but the people that own apartments are concerned with it,” Ms. Bach said, before taking a moment to shoo a smoker from the salon’s doorstep. “As far as riffraff in the neighborhood, they have always been here and will always be here. This is New York City.”

Farther down 25th Street, at This ‘n’ That Jewelry and Collectibles, the owner, Anita Stern, was decidedly more alarmed. She has installed a security system with eight cameras and attends the protests and meetings about the shelter.

“As far as we’re concerned, it’s going to hurt my business without a doubt,” she said. At the protest last week, Chelsea residents were mostly concerned about their safety.

“At what point can my 11-year-old come home from school?” Jacques Lilly asked. “And the answer is probably ‘never’ with the volume of homeless people and drug-addicted people on the street.”

Others posed similar questions. They said they were not against homeless people or even homeless shelters, but against such a large shelter in their neighborhood. Many said they would have supported the shelter had it been smaller.

“Shelters, not warehouses,” went one of the chants.

Mr. Rosenblatt said the art show in Chelsea was meant to humanize clients of the Bowery Residents’ Committee for their new neighbors.

At the bank branch, the artwork of the homeless men and women is shown in windows facing the street. “Angels,” by Michael Pettinato, a work of pastels and acrylics on canvas, looks like a snapshot of outer space, with a haze of distant stars and flashes of fluorescent colors.

Another artist, Brian Smith, whose mother was a painter, used chalk to draw “Still Trees,” three bright trees against a dark background. After two years of living in his car, and an additional two years living at the Bowery Residents’ Committee shelter on the Lower East Side, he is looking for his own apartment with the group’s help.

“I can understand their point,” he said, referring to complaints about homeless people wandering the sidewalks. “They pay a lot of money in rent. But the shelter doesn’t allow us to hang out in front of the building.”