In this season of holiday giving, the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) is about to put a big ribbon on the Park Avenue Armory. ESDC, a state agency that promotes privatization, will soon request proposals to renovate and manage the block-sized landmark building located on the tony Upper East Side.
With Tiffany fixtures and 80-foot-high ceilings, the Armory regularly hosts chic art, book and antique fairs. But two of its floors also house the Lenox Hill Park Avenue Armory Women’s Shelter, where about 100 of the city’s most frail and elderly homeless women live.
Now, the shelters’ managers fear that the ESDC’s bid to privatize the Armory could put these women in jeopardy. The state is advertising for a developer “to restore, preserve, manage and operate the 120-year-old Armory for economically viable use.”
It’s the “economically viable” clause that worries shelter managers: For the state, increasing rental revenue is the primary goal. But the shelter currently pays no rent, and to lease the palatial 55,000-square-foot drill hall for trade shows, operators currently pay about $7,500 a day. The fees are “woefully low,” according to ESDC spokesperson Maura Gallucci.
While there are no specific plans to close the shelter, there are also no indications that guidelines for future development will protect it. It’s not clear how–or even whether–these beds for homeless women will be retained, said Nancy Wackstein, executive director of Lenox Hill Neighborhood House, which has run the shelter under a contract with the city’s Department of Homeless Services since 1996. “Where is the clause [in the proposal] protecting the shelter?” Wackstein asked.
The Department for Homeless Services refuses to explain how the shelter might be maintained under a profit-driven management. Officials did not return repeated phone calls. Newly elected Councilmember Eva Moskowitz, who represents the Upper East Side’s 4th Council District, told City Limits that she supports the shelter, calling it “exemplary” and adding that it is important to find a balance between economic development and social service. “It’s difficult to find a workable location in this community,” she said.
Walter L. Deane, founder and former president of the local block association, agrees. The shelter “is more a part of the community than the art shows that aren’t neighborhood minded,” Deane said. “A lot of the ladies have lived there longer than many in the co-ops.”
Deane, who is a community advisor to the shelter, also sits on the governor’s advisory council for the Armory. But aside from Deane, Lenox Hill residents don’t have much of a voice. Most of the rest of the governor’s appointees on the advisory council understand architectural preservation much better than human services. Representatives from New York State include the military and naval division, the Department of Parks, Recreation and Historical Preservation, the Council on the Arts and the Division of the Budget. Nobody speaks for DHS; instead, the Commission for Landmarks Preservation sits in for the mayor. The request for proposals is scheduled for release in January.