The Hotel Chelsea at one time was home to literary lions including Mark Twain, O. Henry and Tennessee Williams. But since the enigmatic developer Joseph Chetrit purchased the bohemian citadel for $78.5 million in 2011, court documents have constituted the bulk of the Chelsea’s written output.
In the past year, owners have proposed a controversial expansion to accommodate a rooftop bar; tenants, joined by Christine Quinn, have rallied and brought litigation against unsafe conditions stemming from renovations; a judge demanded that the Chetrit Group return 22 paintings to an artist’s widow; a blind man sued ownership after falling into a sidewalk elevator and losing the finger with which he reads braille; and, on March 22, the Department of Buildings issued a stop work order after “illegal gas piping” cut off heat and hot water.
“It’s the theater of the absurd,” said Zoe Pappas, president of the Hotel Chelsea Tenants Association and a resident since 1995. The association was formed in September 2011 in response to unsafe conditions created after Mr. Chetrit’s purchase of the building and its transition into a swank hotel under the guidance of architect Gene Kaufman. In December of 2011, the tenants filed a lawsuit against the Chetrit Group, and subsequent litigation and complaints have revolved around mold, asbestos and fire hazards.
“It’s not about who bought the building,” Ms. Pappas said. “It’s about what they did to the building and to all of us.” For his part, Mr. Chetrit filed suit last month through Chelsea Dynasty LLC against the Chelsea’s former owners, alleging “misrepresentation” of the property during its sale.
Ms. Pappas said that communication outside of court and bureaucratic channels has been limited. “The landlord is unavailable, as are his representatives,” she said. “They never returned anybody’s call.” (The Chetrit Group did not respond to The Commercial Observer’s repeated requests for comment over the phone.)
Last week, almost one year after winning an agreement in housing court that gave the landlord a deadline for necessary repairs, the HCTA filed a criminal motion to hold ownership in contempt of court.
Ms. Pappas said that at the moment, between 87 and 95 people live in the Chelsea, which contained a total 276 units—86 of them rent-stabilized—under the old ownership. “You’re wrong if you think people in the Chelsea pay $200 or $300 a month,” she said. “Very few people pay lower rent. Others pay $1,500, $2,500 or more.” She added that only “one or two” people left following evictions, although in 2011 ownership filed motions to evict 10 tenants.
The photographer Linda Troeller told The Commercial Observer that she was just evicted as of March 31, on the grounds that she had not lived in the building 183 days in the past year. She is in the process of appealing. “What’s most important is to stop the harassment,” she said. “We don’t live in the world where [former owner] Stanley Bard let Milos Forman spend a year here without paying. But I do pay my rent, and I live in this room.”
Ms. Troeller claims her appeal will be decided next month. The acute growing pains of the Chelsea as it becomes a more traditional, polished hotel should continue well beyond that date, and the HCTA is ready for a long fight.
“This is not a game of cat and mouse. We’re protecting our rights, because [the Chetrit Group] wanted us out abusively,” Ms. Pappas said. “They warehoused checks. They sent eviction notices then cashed checks. It’s like the Wild West 200 years ago. They have no right to trample upon legality, humanity, common sense and morality.”