By Carol Tannenhauser
The photograph above shows how Hi-Life Bar & Grill, on the corner of Amsterdam Avenue and 83rd Street, is supposed to look. (The “Hi-LifeMobile” is a 1936 Lincoln Zephyr that belongs to the owner.) The photograph below shows how Hi-Life actually looks — and has for the past six-and-a-half years.
Metropolitan Window Fashions is a few doors down from Hi-Life on Amsterdam Avenue, toward 82nd Street. The photograph below shows how it is meant to look.
The next photograph shows how it currently looks — and has for the past six-and-a-half years as well.
Earl Geer and Bruce Heyman, the owners of Hi-Life and Metropolitan, respectively, are neighbors and friends. Earl has been at his location for 29 years, and Bruce at his for 15. “Nearly half of those years have been spent under the sidewalk shed,” Bruce said. Earl added,”Except for a guy who was with me from the start, none of my employees have ever seen Hi-Life without the shed.”
Both men expressed their support of Local Law 11, which requires that the facades of all buildings over six stories be inspected every five years, and repaired if necessary. Sidewalk sheds are required by the Department of Buildings (DOB) for the safety of pedestrians when conditions are unsafe or work is being done. The stories of people killed by falling building debris are well-known, including that of a two-year-old girl who was killed in 2015, while visiting her grandmother on the Upper West Side.
“We accept that scaffolding is part of life in the city,” Earl said. “But it should be the landlord’s responsibility to get a DOB permit to fix the job, and dutifully try to do that in a timely manner. There are always problems with Landmarks, contractors, etc.; all that’s expected in the real world. But it’s going on seven years. Enough is enough.”
Earl and Bruce have little recourse. They can’t withhold their rent, because their businesses are located in buildings that are separate from and adjacent to the one that erected the sidewalk shed. Their landlords bear no responsibility. The shed was erected by Sofia Storage, located at 475 Amsterdam Avenue, between the two businesses. “We are collateral damage,” Bruce said.
“When it first went up, they were like, ‘It’s gonna be a six-month project,'” Earl recalled. “Every six months, they’d say some version of the same thing. Meanwhile, for years, no one appeared to be working.”
A summary of the case sent by a DOB spokesperson showed large gaps in the timeline of the project:
The owners of 475 Amsterdam Avenue filed a Façade Inspection Safety Program (FISP) report in 2013 which indicated that the façade was in an unsafe condition…A subsequent FISP report was filed in 2017, which also indicated that the façade was unsafe…A DOB permit to start repairs on the façade was first issued to 475 Amsterdam Avenue on 7/21/14, and was closed out by the contractor on 2/4/16. The owner hired a different contractor, and pulled new permits for the façade repair work on 4/20/18, and this was most recently renewed on 3/12/19. This permit is still active.
Building owners are legally required to correct unsafe façade conditions… DOB issues penalties of $1,000 a month for failure to correct unsafe façade conditions related to FISP reports. DOB has issued $9,300 in total fines associated with the façade condition at this building.”
“I would estimate that they worked on the building for no more than one year total, out of the six-and-half,” Earl said. “We don’t understand their motivation for leaving it up so long, their negligence. Is it financial problems? Or, maybe, they’re selling it, or, maybe, they just don’t care.”
Both men say their businesses have been hurt “substantially” by the long-standing shed.
”80% of our business is walk in,” Bruce said. “And we’re a design store, so we depend on beautiful windows. I’d say business is down 20% over the last six-and-a-half years. That’s hard on me and my employees, who are waiting for raises. It’s depressing.”
“A half-generation of customers has never see our beautiful, corner neon sign, with the look and the style and the presence that we’re paying an astronomical, market-rate, full-blast, through-the-roof rent for. On top of the rent, you add the burden of scaffolding.”
Earl summed up his sentiments about Sofia Storage, who he is no longer in contact with, simply. “They’re not being very good neighbors,” he said.
WSR attempted several times to get in touch with John and Frank Sofia, both by going to the office and leaving messages. We also reached out to the engineering firm responsible for the job. We did speak to April Adams, Community Liaison at Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer’s office. Earl had reached out to Brewer last summer, and Adams had arranged a conference call, in August, between Earl, the engineers, and representatives from the DOB. “They promised they would take it down by this fall,” Earl said. An email from the DOB shows that, as of this post, they have not yet filed the paperwork to begin doing so.
“Local Law 11 is necessary to protect the residents and visitors of New York City, but not a license to wrap buildings with scaffolding for years on end while businesses languish in the shadows,” Brewer emailed WSR. “Safety is paramount yet the impact on the community must also be considered, and we must expect building owners to be courteous and respectful of their neighbors while repairing façades completely and quickly.”
This week, Brewer personally called and left a message for John Sofia, Adams said.