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“Follow the money,” says Dr. John Romanelli.
Romanelli was the final president of the medical staff at Long Island College Hospital (LICH) before the merger with the State University of New York Downstate (SUNY). He has been a doctor with LICH for more than 30 years. His entire family has been treated at LICH. And like so many others, he is concerned about the future of his hospital.
LICH originally sought a suitor in the late 1990′s to prevent their hospital from accruing massive debt. Ironically, once under Continuum Health Partner’s leadership, money began leaking through the cracks of the 155 year old hospital. Between the stripping of their real estate assets and eradicating endowments, LICH has watched much of their value slip away. The lack of resources, funding and attention by their governing partners over the past 15 years has left LICH vulnerable to a potential shutdown. But the communities that rely on this hospital have fought for – and averted – the closure, at least for now.
Last week on Wednesday, April 24, the NY City Council Health Committee voted unanimously to support a resolution presented by Councilmen Brad Lander (D-39) and Stephen Levin (D-33).
In his opening remarks, Lander commented that “We’re not insisting that SUNY Downstate continue to operate LICH. They’ve made it clear that that doesn’t work for them.”
Levin followed by saying that SUNY has not “shown any interest in operating [LICH] successfully,” but “that should not overshadow the vital need for healthcare services in the Cobble Hill/Brooklyn Heights area.”
On Thursday the following afternoon around 3 pm, the full NY City Council approved the resolution with a second unanimous vote. The bill called on SUNY and the Department of Health (DOH) “to work with stakeholders to pursue the acquisition of Long Island College Hospital (LICH) by another health care institution to preserve critical health care services for the community.”
On Friday April 26, SUNY formally withdrew their proposed closure plan from DOH. In the news release from Ronald Najman, SUNY also plans to “continue to seek a provider of healthcare services within the LICH community, including potentially a hospital operator.” Immediately upon the withdrawal were cheers of victory among LICH’s supporters and employees.
Lander publically joked at a meeting the following week that “never has a city resolution produced results so quickly.”
However, there still remain serious cries of concern for the ailing Brooklyn hospital. Considering SUNY’s sordid past decisions, the apprehension is well deserved. Dr. Daniel Ricciardi commented, “Continuum has definitely raped and pillaged us; SUNY just neglected us.” Dr. Ricciardi, a rheumatology specialist through LICH, has lived in Brooklyn Heights since 1980. He began his residency at LICH in 1977.
SUNY sparked a recent controversy over LICH real estate. The deception is one of several examples SUNY has exhibited since their takeover of LICH in two years ago. However, selling off the valuable Cobble Hill properties first began with Continuum.
In June 2008, the New York Times (NYT) published an article entitled “Doctors Say Hospital is Falling Victim to Its Own Real Estate Value.” Nearly five years ago, LICH Continuum Health Partners recognized the value of the property and had sold off three of the campuses buildings for a total of more than $33 million. In previous years they sold a number LICH properties, including several brownstones along Atlantic Avenue and St. Peter’s Church and School on Hicks Street for a total of $16 million.
Most notably of these buildings was the former International Longshoreman Association’s (ILA) Medical Center at 340 Court Street. Dr. Romanelli and several of his colleagues put out a bid for the building. About 30 doctors planned to open clinics and private practices associated with LICH. Continuum discovered their plan, outbid the doctors and bought it themselves for nearly $8 million. A few short months later, Continuum flipped the property for $24 million.
The article also noted that “Stanley Brezenoff, president of Continuum, said in an interview Monday [June 9, 2008] that the system is, indeed, trying to cash in on the real estate,” to keep LICH from “the brink of bankruptcy. ‘We do the liquidation of assets in order to give them money to operate,’ [he said.]”
Initially, hospital employees were told that the money would be used as a $5 million investment for the development of primary care. But that never happened.
Berezenoff maintained that the money went towards the hospital’s deficit. Dr. Daniel Ricciardi, who was initially on LICH’s Board of Trustees when they merged with Continuum’s board, explained that Continuum was charging their five hospitals equally for all services, “even if we didn’t get services.” Smaller hospitals – like LICH – were expected to pay the same as larger hospitals for billing and executive salaries.
After being sold by Continuum, the Court Street location was immediately demolished and is still being developed into luxury condos.
Under Brezenoff’s management, Continuum had a prior history of selling property of other hospitals under their jurisdiction. A Beth Israel building was sold for $180 million to a condominium developer. Property at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center was also sold to the same developer.
In the NYT article Brezenoff noted that St. Vincent’s Hospital in Manhattan – still operating at the time – would close if permission was not granted to sell off some of the landmarked property for redevelopment. “ ‘What’s St. Vincent’s, except a real estate strategy?’ ” he said.
Past president, Dr. Arnold Licht and current president, Dr. Toomas Sorra of LICH’s medical staff responded to the article with a letter to the editor. They wrote, “The short-term response to a long-term problem underscores our concerns about why LICH’s finances are still so troubled after 10 years under Continuum management.”
Five years later, property values have soared and the city’s population has hit an all time high at 8,336,697. While all five boroughs registered a larger influx in 2012, Brooklyn registered the highest percentage with a 2.4% increase. Brooklyn’s population grew by almost 61,000 last year – nearly twice the number of people accounted for in Manhattan, where the population grew by 33,200 (2.1%).
In March of 2013, The Real Deal: New York City Real Estate News published an article entitled “Brooklyn’s Building Bonanza,” sighting a number of real estate developments “slated for Brooklyn and Queens – with a strong emphasis on Brooklyn.” The article continues, “The flood of new inventory will be concentrated predominantly in Downtown Brooklyn” – very near to LICH.
The Real Deal cites many developments throughout Downtown Brooklyn including a 720 unit rental on Schermerhorn Street, a 200,000 square foot residential building on Smith Street, a 74 unit rental on Clinton Street in Brooklyn Heights that sold for $50.8 million, a 440 unit rental on Flatbush Extension, a 90,000 square foot residential building on Bergen Street in Boerum Hill and Lightstone’s 700 unit rental along the Gowanus Canal.
“The Brooklyn projects tend to be substantially bigger than what’s being built in Manhattan,” because of the rezoning of Downtown Brooklyn in 2004. “In the wake of the rezoning, developers gobbled up prime sites in the neighborhood quickly and, in many cases, cobbled together lots that can accommodate hundreds of residential units,” reported The Real Deal.
On Tuesday, March 26, 2013, the Daily News printed an article, “Prospect of Redeveloping Waterfront Long Island College Hospital Site in Cobble Hill Has Developers Licking Their Chops.” The opening line reads, “Exit the doctors – enter the developers.” The article estimates the total property value of LICH to be upward of $1 billion as “real estate pros are salivating over the possibilities.”
While developers are looking for new properties and SUNY remains in dire financial straits, closing the hospital for capital gain would allow the state institution to pay off massive cash shortages as well as continue on with their plan of opening a for-profit hospital elsewhere in Brooklyn – when the state budget eventually allows it.
“Worse, [SUNY] hospital officials deceived the public, originally saying the closure had nothing to do with the prime real estate on which it sits – only to later admit the value of the land was a consideration,” the Daily News confirms.
When taken all into account, one might find it very easy to determine the merger between SUNY and LICH was originally meant to be a real estate deal. Smaller buildings sold by Continuum gained a huge profit. Very few – if any – services SUNY promised have been fulfilled.
The SUNY Deficit
Appearances suggest that SUNY never created a long-term sustainability plan for LICH. The State Comptrollers audits for the past two years verify that no proposal was ever executed. Dr. Romanelli commented that the only contribution to LICH were the two “tombstones” – the signs marking SUNY’s claim in front of the hospital.
Nurse Practitioner and staff nurse of Psychiatry for the past 13 years, Hardy Hill said, “It makes me wonder if [SUNY] knew exactly what they were doing in the beginning – which is take the institution [LICH] and flip it, like you do in real estate.”
Despite the financial mismanagement by Continuum for more than a decade, SUNY agreed to allow Continuum to continue LICH’s patient billing through 2016 – a service for which LICH is continuing to pay $4 million each month. Doctors and hospital staff at LICH report a consistent lack of billing to insurance companies. Millions of dollars are being lost every year because Continuum gets paid to do the billing whether the billing is done or not. Assemblywoman Joan Millman joked ironically at a recent meeting, “It’s a good time to come here [LICH]; they don’t charge.”
Greenburg said that the billing is still being done by Continuum because it was “just part of the deal when the purchase was made.” Others emphasize that it was impossible for SUNY to take over LICH’s billing because they did not have the proper systems in place, but were supposed to be working towards taking over the process when the deal with Continuum expires in 2016.
Thus far, SUNY’s financial plan has never been released to the public, the state, DOH or even the Comptroller’s Office for annual audits. Greenburg reiterated SUNY’s position that their financial information is available online and they would be happy to fully open their books to any prospective buyer. However, all of the requests from LICH to share crucial information on the actual financial standings were denied – until the pending lawsuit required SUNY to release the documents.
SUNY’s own financial woes, before and during the merger, only became evident in the public eye in 2012 when State Comptroller, Thomas P. DiNapoli released a report entitled “Audit Reveals Alleged Procurement Improprieties at SUNY Downstate Medical Center.” After receiving three anonymous letters of alleged fraud, investigators and auditors “found efforts to circumvent the bidding process with fake bids, improper relationships between staff and vendors, and problems with software implementation.”
DiNapoli stated, “The systematic breakdown in oversight found at SUNY Downstate Medical Center allowed for questionable practices that may have undermined the integrity of the purchasing process and raises concerns about the best price was obtained. Officials must take action to change how business is done and put necessary safeguards in place to protect public dollars from this kind of fraud and abuse.”
In both the 2011 and 2012 audits, the state comptroller’s findings show that SUNY was not financially capable of taking over and maintaining LICH. SUNY estimates that LICH is losing the exact amount each month that is being paid to Continuum for billing – or lack thereof. If proper billing was being implemented, evidence suggests that LICH would be a profitable hospital.
In regards to the 2012 findings by DiNapoli’s audit the following year, SUNY Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher released a statement on January 17, 2013, saying, “Many of the Comptroller’s findings – none of which we dispute or consider to be a surprise – are issues already being remediated or currently being addressed.” SUNY then immediately took action against LICH who incorrectly bore the blame for SUNY’s deficit. Twenty two days later, SUNY’s Board of Trustees voted unanimously to end all services at LICH.
The Othmer Endowment Fund
Donald and Mildred Othmer were both in their nineties when they passed away in the late 1990′s. They had gained a large fortune by investing in Berkshire Hathaway with Warren Buffet. They had no children and at the time of their passing, the Othmer Estate was worth three-quarters of a billion dollars.
Mr. Othmer was an inventor and consultant who at one time sat on the Board of Trustees at LICH. Mrs. Othmer was a former school teacher who volunteered at Brooklyn Botanic Gardens and Planned Parenthood. They were also both life-long patients of LICH.
In their will, they left a combined sum of approximately $136 million to their beloved hospital. When Mr. Othmer’s will was finalized in 1996, $26,956,800 was given to LICH. Mrs. Othmer’s will granted the hospital $109,344,000 after her death in 1998.
The wills set very strict parameters on what was to be done with the money. The hospital was to use only the dividends off of the money each year unless “LICH finds itself on the brink of bankruptcy. If the hospital is forced to close, the intent and purpose of Donald’s and Mildred’s gift to it will become impossible or impracticable to achieve,” the will reads. In 1999, the endowment gained approximately $10 million in dividends.
Both wills also contained restrictions against a beneficiary that does “not qualify as tax exempt under the pertinent Federal tax laws” in which “the undistributed amounts shall be instead distributed to the existing and qualifying charities.”
In addition, LICH was eligible to receive an additional $5 million from the Othmer Estate if a cancer center was created. Continuum bought the ILA building at 340 Court Street – after outbidding the doctors for the property – saying the building would be used for the new cancer center. The facility was to be called the Donald F. and Mildred Topp Othmer building, as dictated in Mrs. Othmer’s will.
On May 30, 2000, King’s County Surrogate’s Court issued a cy pres – or a “doctrine, applied especially to cases of charitable trusts or donations, that, in place of an impossible or illegal condition, limitation, or object, allows the nearest practicable one to be substituted,” according to dictionary.com.
Under the Continuum administration, “already maximized [at] its debt capacity, LICH now petitions the court to exercise its cy pres powers” to “compete successfully and survive economically in the changing health care environment.”
Because LICH was their entity, Continuum controlled the money as a non tax exempt operator. A portion – $30-40 million – was used to make improvements in the hospital, mainly repainting and replacing tile. The Court Street building never materialized and was sold off in 2008.The $5 million, which had been collected in 2002, was never returned to the endowment fund.
From there all traces of the Othmer monies disappear. The remaining $100+ million was absorbed into Continuum’s general pool of funds.
Many of LICH’s doctors, nurses and technicians are hopeful that at least a portion of the money still exists. Some believe that Continuum borrowed the money under terms of a loan. Others expressed concern that after the merger with SUNY, Continuum is no longer liable for the repayment terms. However, one thing is certain. LICH is no longer receiving their yearly dividends.
On April 1, New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA), the Concerned Physicians of LICH, and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1199 filed a lawsuit against SUNY and DOH as an “order to show cause for declaratory Action and Article 78 proceeding.”
Under the conditions of the lawsuit, SUNY was required to provide previously unreleased financial documentation to LICH and the unions one day prior to the court date. Those documents were received exactly one day before the intended court hearing on May 1.
Judge Johnny Lee Baynes granted the second temporary restraining order (TRO) prohibiting SUNY from taking “any action in furtherance of the closure plan” until the originally scheduled hearing on May 2, 2013. The court date was later postponed until May 29, 2013.
Despite court orders, SUNY was already taking steps toward the imminent death of LICH.
On April 6, the Daily News published an article entitled “The State of Long Island College Hospital is outrageous, showing complete contempt for Brooklynites.” It begins, “[LICH] is in critical condition.” In an email provided by Dr. Romanelli to the writer, Denis Hamill, a resident doctor writes, ” ‘The hospital is running out of supplies. Today I wanted to measure one patient’s temperature prior to discharge, but there were no thermometer probe covers available. After searching, a nurse manager found one box on the entire floor. But how long will that last? One shift?’ “
Also in the article, Dr. Romanelli says, ” ‘When doctors don’t have the ability to schedule surgeries, when a child is unable to receive pediatric treatment, when patients are fed tuna sandwiches like prisoners in Central Booking, this is not a hospital. This is criminal. People who don’t need to die might die at LICH because of these abusive conditions.’ “
The article continues to report all around shortages that were crippling the hospital, leaving it inadequate to provide many services. “The state of LICH is outrageous, showing contempt for the people of this part of Brooklyn. It might also be contempt of court,” Hamill writes – suggesting that SUNY’s inaction may be considered action towards closure in the May 29 hearing.
Twenty computers intended and badly needed for LICH were sent directly to SUNY’s campuses. Former lobbyist and current SUNY spokesperson Steve Greenburg explains that LICH is a part of SUNY Downstate and that “anything that is part of LICH belongs to SUNY.”
In December, SUNY’s president, John Williams approved the purchase of a $2.5 million da Vinci Surgical Robot. The robot is designed to assist with surgical procedures, eliminating the possibility of human error. Data is input into the machine and the robot makes precision cuts based on the information given. It can assist in most surgeries, but is most beneficial in prostate surgeries. After the original closure vote on February 8, the robot was taken out of LICH to SUNY Downstate.
SUNY also reportedly purchased at least three brand new ambulances – for SUNY – just weeks before the decision to close LICH was announced, even though SUNY claims to not be financially capable of operating LICH.
In a show of bad faith, WARN notices – or letters of termination were postmarked March 19, the same day of SUNY’s second vote to shut down LICH. The letters would have to have been prepared for mailing in advance of the vote. Greenburg confirmed that as of April 20, the letters were still valid, effective June 18.
Surgical teams at LICH were told by SUNY not to schedule any surgeries, including Caesarian sections after April 30, 2012. The date fell two days before the original court date on May 2, despite court orders that SUNY could not take actions to discontinue any services at LICH.
At the City Council Hearing on April 24, Hill spoke of the condition of his ward. Over the past two years, the psychiatry unit has consistently held 41-43 patients. When he left for the hearing, the ward held 3 patients. He said that by the time he would arrive for his next shift, all three of those patients were scheduled to either be discharged or transferred to another hospital. Hill appealed to the City Council of Health by saying, “You don’t beat up on those who can’t help themselves.”
Dr. Marwan Attilah later confirmed this fact in a phone interview with the Star-Revue. In fact, the psychiatric unit was forced to close Thursday night, April 25 after all three of the doctors relocated to different hospitals. In lieu of their decision to withdraw their foreclosure plan the following day, SUNY quickly hired on a psychiatric doctor and reopened the ward Friday morning, April 26.
Request for Information
On May 1, 2013, SUNY formally issued a Request for Information (RFI) from “qualified parties who could provide health care services [... ] at or around” LICH. The RFI states, “State University of New York (SUNY) on behalf of its Downstate Medical Center is requesting expressions of interest from qualified parties who could provide health care services, including operation of an acute care hospital, at or around the Long Island College Hospital (LICH) site in Brooklyn.”
The RFI continues, “SUNY and certain entities related to SUNY collectively acquired the LICH healthcare services operation from Continuum Health Partners (CHP) in 2011. SUNY has operated LICH with significant annual deficits, and therefore, wishes to divest itself from the LICH operations.”
After being highly publicized in the media, the RFI was long-awaited and welcomed. But upon in-depth scrutiny, the request, “has instead produced further confusion about their motives,” according to Dr. Toomas Sorra, President of Concerned Physicians of LICH.
From a post on their website posted with the RFI on May 1, 2013, SUNY writes, “It is clear that Downstate needs a critical restructuring that will allow it to continue serving the community.” Five reasons for the “fiscal crisis and four “actions” taken by SUNY System Administration are listed in the post, none of which mention LICH.
Dr. Sorra says that the unions will proceed with their lawsuit despite SUNY’s withdrawal of closure from DOH. “SUNY thought by withdrawing this plan, they would get us all to shut up,” he said. “But we demand to be a full service hospital.”
Dr. Sorra calls the RFI a “charade, while Jerry Armer exclaims, “This one has more holes than Swiss cheese from Switzerland. They’re still out to kill Long Island College Hospital.”
The timeline that SUNY has laid out is extremely brief. The deadline for the RFI is May 22, 2013, merely three weeks after the RFI was issued. In addition, the time allotted to submit questions ends at 3 pm on May 15, only two weeks after the request was issued. Seven days later, all requests are due, giving prospective buyers one week to receive a response from SUNY and issue a formal proposal.
The request offers an explanation for their brief timeline. “The information received in this Request for Information (RFI) may be used in the development by SUNY of a plan to achieve fiscal viability of the Downstate Medical Center (the Sustainability Plan). SUNY is required to submit a sustainability plan to DOH and the New York Office of Budget by June 1, 2013 and begin its implementation on June 15, 2013.”
In addition to a limited timeline, the RFI also restricts access to the hospital. “There may be limited opportunities to tour the LICH campus upon request from the respondents. Tours will not include any areas of direct patient care.”
In response to some of the discrepancies, Jeff Strabone, Minister of Information and Cobble Hill Association Officer, discloses that “maybe this process is meant to fail.”
The RFI also points out that although LICH was merged with SUNY, the hospital retains every asset belonging to LICH. “All real estate and property, fixtures, plant and equipment at the LICH campus are held by Downstate at LICH Holding Company, Inc. (DLHC), a New York not-for-profit corporation of which SUNY is the sole member.”
Despite the obstacles, this is significant progress for LICH. Cobble Hill Association (CHA) president, Roy Sloane said, “While this is an important victory and a critical first step – we have not yet won the war.
Strabone reaffirms this message of caution. “Are we out of the woods yet? No. There’s a lot that can still go wrong.” LICH still needs a new operator. But they will need SUNY’s cooperation.
In the interim at the CHA Spring 2013 General Meeting, Sloane “direct[ed] a few words” to SUNY:
“You know we are not happy.
“You talked about community, but you Pearl Harbored us in a surprise attack on our communities without even a word of warning – even as we tried to help you.
“You never engaged the community; you did not live up to your promises.
“You know you were not honest with us. You made no investment, developed no plans and did no outreach. You broke faith with the people you were supposed to serve, and then you tried to take the money and run.
“Our hospital does not ‘belong’ to you. LICH is the product of 150 years of philanthropy, volunteerism and commitment. You have only been holding it in trust. I regret to say that you did not prove worthy of that trust.
“But even with those harsh words said, we are still willing to work with you. Trust can be rebuilt and confidence can be restored, but only if you are willing to engage all of us in the LICH community…
“…This could be your proudest moment – or you’re most shameful. Reach out to us now. It is late, but not too late. Remember if you fail, you’re epitaph will read, ‘Here we lie because we refused to engage the community.’ “
LICH’s death sentence has received a stay of execution. The 460,000 residents in the surrounding communities will still have access to their much-needed medical facility. Activists remain committed to see LICH rebuild and flourish.
However, there is still a lot of hard work and many obstacles ahead. LICH must become viable again quickly – before SUNY has another chance to pull the plug.
Ray Hall falsely telling the Gowanus CAG that all residents of the Red Hook Houses are in favor of the Red Hook Option, mainly the burying of toxic sludge in a Confined Disposal Facility, giving almost a half a million square feet of infill to John Quadrozzi, Jr., at no cost, for his commercial use.
Walter Mugdan said it out loud in a meeting at the South Brooklyn High School. The east coast head of the EPA said in retrospect, he wished they hadn’t offered the option to bury sludge in Red Hook. We agree.
The prospect of free land for any landlord is a great temptation. The EPA proposed to create landfill and donate it to the Gowanus Bay Terminal (GBX), owned by cement mogul John Quadrozzi, Jr. However, the EPA would not do this if the local community opposed it. In the wake of Sandy, and after decades of being a dumping ground for garbage – Red Hook said “no.
Faced with the loss of the free land, and about a month left in the public comment period, the strangely ineffectual Quadrozzi public relations effort went into action. It is unfortunate that their strategy consisted mostly of dividing the community. They tried to convince the EPA that the larger public housing population was on their side, as opposed to the small “elitist” (their words) homeowner population “on the other side of town” (again, their words.) They must have forgotten that almost all of the speakers from the Red Hook Houses have spoken at one or another of the public forums. The tenants have not been swayed by the idea of “jobs” that have been dangled in front of them by Quadrozzi spokesperson Phaedra Thomas. We are saddened by this “divide and conquer” strategy. Since Sandy and before, Red Hook speaks with one voice.
Too many reputations have become tarnished in this last ditch effort to sway public opinion. Phaedra Thomas is a community figure, delightful and charming, one-time head of Southwest Brooklyn Industrial Development Corporation. She went so far as to try and influence housing residents by proclaiming that one can have a prison record and still qualify for one of these “jobs,” which we find to be blatant pandering .
What surprised us the most was the Quadrozzi alliance with Reg Flowers. Flowers is the founder of Falconworks, an excellent and worthy theater group that has empowered and inspired many Red Hook youth. He has worked with the Red Hook Initiative and the Lions Club. He is close to many on the board of ReStore Red Hook. At one time, he wrote columns for the Star-Revue.
Reg, who has done work as a facilitator in public forums, tells us that he has no position in this. However, as shown in our front page article, it is clear that Reg has been a willing accomplice in the Quadrozzi attempt to sway the EPA.
The dedicated people running the Gowanus project for the EPA have their eyes wide open. They see what we see. After Sandy, they should have reconsidered their idea of creating the Confined Disposal Facility (CDF) in Red Hook.
The public comment period to register one’s opinion of the sludge burial option is over. Judging by their public statements, the EPA already understands the majority of the community is against the plan because of environmental risks. The Gowanus will of course still be cleaned up and the sludge will all be shipped elsewhere.
The Star-Revue had an additional reason. The Gowanus, including the mud at the bottom, is a public good. It is now owned or in control by any single person. The EPA’s plan will transfer this mud at no charge to a private citizen, giving him in effect 450,000 square feet of land above seawater the he now owns. If he did this project himself, the cost upwards of $1 billion.
Battery Park City was land created from landfill, much of it coming from the excavation of the original World Trade Center. The city was in control of the river bottom underneath, making the landfill property of the city. A public agency, the Battery Park City Authority (BPCA) was created to manage this new land. Profits from the operation of BPCA go into the revenue stream of New York City, and some of it has been designated for low income housing. Developers of Battery Park City were forced – by contract – to provide the beautiful esplanade encircling the development.
We don’t think that the EPA should provide benefits to a private citizen by giving free land. It would have been better had they found a spot belonging to the city – and have the advantages been shared equally by our entire community.
In addition to jobs, GBX has made all sorts of promises about parts of the CDF becoming parkland and museum space that would be shared with the community. However, none of his promises are legally binding.
Our thought is that a win-win situation might have been for Quadrozzi to donate half of the CDF land to a local trust run by Red Hook community leaders for the benefit of the local population. In this way, the whole community would be guaranteed a share in this windfall.
At a public meeting held April 16th at the South Brooklyn Community High School, Regional Superfund Director Walter Mugdan repeated multiple times that the proposed plan to bury toxic sludge from the Gowanus in Red Hook would never happen. “How many times do you want me to say it? If we don’t have your acceptance – and it seems evident that we do not – as I’ve said, the disposal of the facility in a CDF ain’t gonna happen. Because we asked for the community’s reaction. And we’re hearing it,” he insisted.
While the official result of the public comment period, which ended April 27th, will not be known for several months, Mugdan stated over and over and over again that the EPA understands the Red Hook community is not in favor of depositing the Gowanus’ residue in the neighborhood. This option was always subject to community approval, as well as the approval of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.
Ironically, this all took place at a meeting orchestrated by Reg Flowers, who has made his name recently as a community facilitator in forums as diverse as Occupy Red Hook and the NYC Housing Authority. While ostensibly assuming a neutral position, he has been linked with John Quadrozzi Jr., whose private company would be the main beneficiary if the Red Hook Option were to be approved.
Public comment period over
The end of the public comment period represents the end of what became a painful process, because the forces in favor of private gain sought to divide the Red Hook community, pitting jobs against pollution.On one side stood Red Hook residents who in the wake of Superstorm Sandy were fearful of encased toxic sludge escaping and adding to the contamination of Red Hook’s soil and air. On the other side was a landowner who would be the recipient of a gift of 450,000 square feet of new land – a gift worth upwards of $1 billion, according to Brooklyn Greenway Initiative co-founder Brian McCormick.
Despite a slew of public meetings, newspaper articles and an informative EPA website, much misinformation and lack of information has clouded the argument, pro and con, in the mind of the average Red Hooker.
Mugdan worked hard at the April 16th meeting to frame the issues correctly. Currently, what was open for public comment was the proposal to bury the sludge on the property of Quadrozzi, owner of the Erie Grain Terminal and the land around it, called Gowanus GBX. Further issues will be decided in the future, including something called de-watering of the sludge. The $500 million dollar plan to clean up the Gowanus is still in the early planning stages. Dewatering and other issues will be part of the continuing public monitoring process – but what was asked initially has been only whether the sludge will become part of the Gowanus GBX. It’s approval has nothing at all to do with cleaning up – a job tasked the EPA in 2010, when the Gowanus was designated a Federal Superfund site.
Much to the chagrin of the Bloomberg administration, which was keen on a quick local cleanup that would benefit the Toll Brother’s plan to build luxury housing adjacent to the canal, the Gowanus received the designation in March of 2010. Following initial testing, a Remedial Investigation Report was issued in January 2011. The Feasibility Study was issued in January 2011, and the Proposed Plan in December, 2012.
Christos Tsiamis, a chemical engineer with a masters from Columbia University was named the project director in March 2010. The idea of creating the Confined Disposal Facility (CDF) as an alternative to shipping the sludge out-of-state is his. The EPA has created CDF’s before, most notably in cleanups of the Great Lakes, specifically Waukegon Harbor, an hour north of Chicago. That CDF houses PCB contaminated sludge. It’s creation benefits Illinois taxpayers, and the land created is public land.
According to the EPA’s Natalie Lowney, the only possible placement of a local CDF is above water owned by private citizen Quadrozzi. The new land would be his property; it’s use would be legally subject only to certain restrictions that maintain the integrity of the cement encasement of the sludge. As is EPA custom, this plan is subject to public approval.
With the publication of the plan in December, two public meetings were scheduled for January 2013 – one in Carroll Gardens and one in Red Hook. The first glimmerings of negative public opinion were evident at the January 23rd meeting at NYCHA’s Miccio Center. While the EPA was generally applauded at the PS 58 meeting a few days earlier by Carroll Gardens residents, Christos and Lowney were severely grilled about the prospects of burying sludge in Red Hook – especially in close proximity to the ballfields and Red Hook Houses. Towards the end of the meeting, Phaedra Thomas, without initially identifying herself as an employee of Gowanus GBX, spoke glowingly of Quadrozzi, and the CDF option, until she was outed as a GBX employee by Declan Walsh and others in the audience.
A month later there was a special public meeting of the Gowanus Community Action Group (CAG) which was also advertised in the local newspapers. The CAG is a group set up by the EPA at every Superfund project consisting of local stakeholders. The Gowanus CAG was organized in October 2010. It meets regularly and provides a forum for the community to express it’s concerns to the EPA, and for the EPA to update the community on its progress.
Members of the CAG include representatives from the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, The Carroll Gardens Neighborhood Association, CB6, the Park Slope Civic Council, the Red Hook Civic Association, the Sierra Club, Gowanus Dredgers, Proteus Gowanus, Fifth Avenue Committee and the Cobble Hill Association. Representatives from the Red Hook Houses East and West, namely Dorothy Shields and Lillien Marshall, are original members, but until recently were rarely in attendance.
Red Hook residents wary
The complaints expressed by residents at the January meeting were mild in comparison to the February 13th public CAG meeting held in the PS 15 auditorium. A February edition of the Star-Revue described some of the back and forth:
“You’re very intelligent, but you repeat yourself a lot,” Red Hook resident Christopher Morson told Project Manager Christos Tsiamis, who designed the plan, delivered the presentation and has been one of its chief advocates.
“I know it’s all business, it’s all money” said Morson, referring to the $37 million that would be saved by responsible parties like the city and National Grid if waste is dumped in the Red Hook landfill instead of being shipped away—like sludge with higher toxicity adjacent to neighborhoods like Carroll Gardens.”
CB 6 District Manager Craig Hammerman commented on the idea of giving GBX the authority to determine future use of the landfill. He said “I think it’s quite telling that the question of the private property owner’s fitness with regard to environmental violations doesn’t seem to be an issue for the EPA,” he said. “There are a lot of unanswered questions. It seems like a lot of discretion will be given to the private property owner, so that’s something we all need to consider as a community.”
The Star-Revue article continued: “Quadrozzi’s friends appeared to number few in PS 15 on February 13, where he attended. Accordingly, EPA Community Involvement Coordinator Natalie Loney suggested the EPA’s view that ‘the trend is that the community does not want this.”
Quadrozzi and Thomas were present at this meeting and both made public statements, stressing the jobs that would be created if the proposal survived public scrutiny.
Jobs are an issue that has been used to divide Red Hook before. One part of Red Hook contains public housing, where unemployment is generally upwards of 25%. Another part consists of homeowners and businesses. To these residents, quality of life is also important. Red Hook declined after highways were built blocking off Red Hook from the rest of Brooklyn. Jobs left as transportation to and from Red Hook became more difficult, and also as a result of the decline of the shipping and warehousing industries locally. A big local employer, H. Kohnstamm & Co., located adjacent to the Houses in back of Lorraine Street, shut down in the late 1970’s.
During the local debates on the location of both Fairway and IKEA, jobs were dangled to Red Hook Houses residents to gain their support. Beginning at least as far back as a March 22nd 2012 EPA meeting at the Miccio Center the prospect of a relatively small number of temporary jobs were teasingly placed before the community. At various times the Quadrozzi publicity machine has presented various plans for the community, including jobs, public parks, community spaces. John McGettrick characterized their shifting landscape of ideas as “whatever they think will fly at the time.”
Perhaps realizing that the tide had turned against them, the Quadrozzi GBX publicity machine cranked into full force with an April 1st meeting they arranged at the Miccio Center. This followed the appearance throughout the community of posters urging residents to “Tell the EPA NO to a Toxic Red Hook.” These posters were the work of local artist and mother Carly Yates, who held weekly meetings to discuss the Quadrozzi proposal at Bait and Tackle, creating the posters and a website in March to encourage residents to let the EPA know how they felt about the proposal.
The April 1st meeting was not attended by the EPA. Experts were brought forth stressing the safety of the CDF option, with Quadrozzi and Thomas filling out the rest of the meeting. Questions from the small audience were held to a minimum.
Phaedra Thomas spoke for about 15 minutes, stressing jobs and job training that the project would allegedly provide. She interlaced the 30-60 jobs that the Red Hook Option might provide with the 500 jobs that the entire Gowanus cleanup would provide. Being as this was a forum ostensibly created to promote the GBX option – not the Superfund cleanup in general – the implication was that one was dependent on the other, which is untrue. In the brief Q & A that followed the prepared presentation, some audience members echoed that confusion, which was purposefully allowed to linger.
Turning over the microphone to her boss, John Quadrozzi Jr., Phaedra called him a man she could trust, someone she has known since 2000 when they worked together on an anti-dumping crusade in Red Hook. Quadrozzi described the history of the family property that was purchased in 1997. He erroneously described the 1922 Grain Terminal as a success. In fact it was a failed attempt to revive Red Hook’s grain handling business. The important piece of the presentation was a precise depiction of the potential landfill. When asked, Quadrozzi offered that it consisted of 450,000 square feet of land created from his underwater property. Adjacent to the Henry Street Basin and abutting Columbia Street, he proposed usage of the new land as a break-bulk facility, a tidal wetlands park and a museum composed of a rusty ship that he owns.
Reg Flowers raised his hand to speak and announced that he had “recently gotten to know Mr. Quadrozzi, and found that he was not a bad guy. Mr. Quadrozzi is not the devil.”
Flowers is a Yale graduate and founder of Falconworks, an “organization whose mission is to empower communities and individuals through theater,” as described on their website. They present a series called “Off The Hook,” in which aspiring playwrites under the age of 14 write and act in their own plays.
While claiming to have only recently gotten to know Quadrozzi, Flowers registered a website called RedHookVision.com on May 25, 2012. Half of the website is devoted the possible future use of GBX. It says:
“GBX – a property that includes the grain elevators near the Red Hook ball fields – is being considered by the EPA to create a Confined Disposal Facility (CDF). The CDF would be created on GBX property, under water, essentially increasing the size of the property’s upland area, with dredge from the Gowanus Canal. The EPA is still deciding how they will handle the Gowanus clean-up and they are taking comments and concerns from residents on a regular basis in the coming months, with a proposed remediation plan to be released at the end of July 2012.”
“GBX is controlled by local businessman and resident John Quadrozzi, Jr. who is inviting Red Hook to the table to create a framework for developing new sustainable industrial businesses that can help Red Hook grow into a greener future. The scope of visioning is public amenities, specifically developing an eco-industrial park, exploring waste-to-energy, increased maritime operations, beneficial reuse material manufacturing and distribution and a Waterfront Park & Maritime Museum with both community and commercial space aboard the M/V Loujaine – similar to Manhattan’s Intrepid Museum, but with an apropos cargo ship commensurate to the Brooklyn Industrial Waterfront.”
Many in the community were surprised to hear that Flowers, who has been associated with Occupy Red Hook, would ally himself with a private developer looking to benefit from the disposal of toxic waste in the Red Hook community.
It was revealed shortly after Reg’s public support of Quadrozzi that the next Falconworks production would be an Ibsen play supported in part by John Quadrozzi, performed on space donated by GBX.
On April 9th, an email was sent out by Flowers announcing a new April 16th community meeting. It read, “Even with all the meetings, signs, petitions and conversations on the street, you may still be in search of answers and wondering why you should be for or against certain parts of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) plan. Join community members, the Gowanus Canal Community Advisory Group, and reps from the EPA to get clear on the positions, ask questions, and discuss the Gowanus, the history of local polluting, and our role in caring for the environment.”
The meeting was an attempt to show the EPA that there was indeed community support for the Red Hook Option. It was ultimately a failed attempt, as speaker after speaker got up to show their opposition to the plan – much to the chagrin of an unsmiling Flowers. EPA Regional Head, Walter Mugdan repeated over and over that this option would not be chosen, as it was evidently not supported by the community. Quadrozzi himself sat patiently through the meeting with his wife, before finally getting up. Upon leaving he muttered something about ‘stupid people’ which Bea Byrd took issue with, and a shouting match ensued.
Lou Sones, of Groups Against Garbage Sites, a community group he founded in the 1990′s to harness community support against the locating of waste transfer facilities throughout Red Hook, read a forceful letter which included the following:
“With all due respect, There is a serious lack of trust in the owner of and lobbyist for this site. They have floated 3 different drafts of what they propose. Every time the community finds dangerous flaws in their proposals, they change the proposal to placate the concerns. This moving target leads to more distrust. What this pattern says to the community is that they’ll say anything and then do whatever they want. Why in their second proposal do they proudly announce that they would convert waste to energy and oddly enough a study was done by Columbia University on the feasibility of importing tons of putrescible garbage (that’s the stinky stuff) a day to burn at the Quadrozzi site. But when the community (excuse the play on words) got wind of it, it was no longer mentioned or addressed.
Whatever they build on this site from concrete plants to asphalt plants or a garbage burning facility, will bring increased truck traffic to a park. GBX has told us on many occasions that they have the right of way to build whatever the zoning allows. That might be true, but we don’t want to give them more land mass to facilitate them doing it.”
Yet despite this public relations disaster, the Quadrozzi publicity machine was not yet finished. Six days later, just five days before the end of the public comment period, they unveiled a website http://www.yesnontoxicredhook.com and distributed posters designed to look like the No Toxic Red Hook posters, but with the opposite message. The website opens up to a letter written on the stationery of what seems to be a newly minted organization called “Red Hook Houses Community Action Coalition.”
The letter is addressed to Christos Tsiamis and forwarded to a host of local and state politicians. It is signed by Ray Hall and also by Dorothy Shields and Lillie Marshall, presidents of the Red Hook East and West Resident Associations, Ray’s brother Earl Hall and Mickey Reid and Anthony Watson, vice presidents of the tenant organizations. It reads, in part:
“Our organizations have joined together in an act of solidarity to fight for the Red Hook Option because people from the ‘back’ of Red Hook, many of whom own their own homes, have organized an outspoken and misguided campaign against it. The group Does Not represent the majority of Red Hook, and to the contrary, represents the minority. Their campaign has involved misrepresentations and lies about the nature and safety of the Red Hook Option. The ‘No Toxic Red Hook’ literature and website have robbed many of our residents’ right to factual information, self-determination and the pursuit of bettering their own community. There was a bright orange sign illegally posted on every one of our buildings’ doors saying “Toxic Sludge Coming to Red Hook?” At public meetings where residents came to hear your Agency’s proposal, hecklers and ill-mannered speakers scared our residents away from even daring to ask any normal questions about the activities that will be involved in the Red Hook Option.
We IMPLORE you not to allow this small, yet politically savvy, overly empowered elitist group to dictate the future of our community. Some people have just joined into the mob mentality, lighting the torches of out of misplaced fear. But the leaders, who know the project is perfectly safe, but are using this as an opportunity get renewed name recognition and to stop ANY growth of industry and the jobs industry provides, are guilty of orchestrating a great social injustice on a community that desperately needs the real opportunities that a project like this would afford our residents.”
The next paragraph claims that there hasn’t been any real dialogue between the residents of the EPA and tenants of the Red Hook Houses. In fact, there have been many community meetings held in Red Hook, both by the EPA and by the project’s supporters, as detailed in this article. It claims that elected officials have also been left out of “real dialogue,” despite the fact that Nydia Velazquez herself brought the EPA to Wyckoff Gardens for a recent meeting, and Brad Lander has been part of the process from the very beginning. He has come out with a statement in support of the community, reading as follows:
“I do not support the location of a confined disposal facility in Red Hook for the disposal of contaminated material. While I appreciate the desire to leverage the cleanup for local jobs, it appears to me that the strong majority of Red Hook residents who have engaged in this process are opposed to the proposal, and do not believe that the benefits for the community outweigh the risks. If they do not want to make this trade-off, I believe we should respect their wishes.”
Hall’s letter then talks about Quadrozzi, who Phaedra Thomas has publicly called “a shining light in the community.” He writes:
“There has been a deliberate attack on John Quadrozzi, Jr.’s character which has also been appalling. We have known and worked with John for over 10 years. We know him to be an active Advocate for a cleaner environment, not an environmental criminal. Not only did he clean up his own property (which was the center of all negative activity in Red Hook in the 80’s and 90’s), he has always worked on improving and cleaning ALL of Red Hook. He has sponsored greening initiatives, fought illegal dumping with a personal partnership with the NY Department of Sanitation Police, and insists on impeccable cleanliness from his tenants at the Terminal. John has Always delivered on his word including delivering turkeys on thanksgiving, presents on Christmas, horses on National Night Out Against Crime, basketballs and books for Summer programs, and countless other acts of charity and partnership. John always hires Red Hook Houses residents, and prides himself on providing opportunities for people to better their lives through honest work. We look forward to working with Mr. Quadrozzi on this exciting project and know that you can have full confidence that he will continue his stellar record of being a great neighbor and friend to all of Red Hook’s residents.”
Martha Bowers, Founder and Executive Director of Red Hook’s Dance, Theater Etcetera is one of the recipients of Quadrozzi’s largesse. Phaedra Thomas sits on the DTE board. In a phone interview, Bowers called Quadrozzi a “long time supporter of ours.” She continued, “He has always been very interested in supporting the youth portions of our events.” DTE holds in annual Red Hook Fest weekend, which this year is celebrating it’s 20th anniversary. This two-day event, which this year takes place on May 30th and June 1st, presents world class dance events, as well as a performance by their own students, many of them from Red Hook. It is a well loved and this year bring back the Earth and Surf parade.
DTE presented a community service award to Quadrozzi in 2010. Bowers is a friend of Phaedra Thomas, and stated that “it would be hard for me to believe that she would get involved in something that would not be good for the community.” However, when asked for her personal position on the GBX plan, she deferred, saying that she did not have enough information to be for or against it.
While posters, websites, meetings and other types of publicity are all components of a publicity campaign, the question remains why it was started so late in the game. And why did the team of John Quadrozzi, Phaedra Thomas, Reg Flowers, Ray and Earl Hall and Lillie Marshall and Dorothy Shields choose the strategy of attempting to play the different sides of Red Hook against each other, especially after the unifying role that Hurricane Sandy played.
The NY Press Association (NYPA) is the trade organization for NY community newspapers. Their annual Better Newspaper Contest recognizes excellence in journalism and publishing. Last month the results were announced at their spring convention held in Saratoga Springs. The Red Hook Star-Revue, in competition with 148 other papers, came away with six awards.
The Star-Revue began publishing in 2010, joined NYPA in 2012, and became a prizewinner our first time out. NYPA’s member newspapers include publication in small little farm villages as well as large urban areas. The largest papers include The Scarsdale Inquirer, The Villager of Greenwich Village, and The Sag Harbor Express in Long Island. Some of the smaller ones include the Westmore News in Port Chester, The Lewisboro Ledger publishing in Lewis County, population 27,072, and the Saugerties Times, a small paper in a town near Woodstock. Some of these papers are independent, many are part of chains. The Star-Revue is an independent newspaper.
The top prize for editorial excellence went to the Long Island Press. Advertising excellence went to The Record-Review of Bedford/Pound Ridge, a toney part of Westchester County. Other categories included photographic excellence, which went to The Southampton Press, and Best Newspaper Web Site, also won by the Southampton Press.
In total there were 2,351 entries in 60 categories. The contest was judged by members of the North Carolina Press Association.
This was the first year that we entered the contest, and winning six awards was considered highly promising by publishers we met at the convention, held in Saratoga’s historic Gideon Putnam Hotel.
The Star-Revue took second place in “Coverage of the Arts.” We submitted articles written about Jalopy’s Bayou Festival and a review of The Woodshed Prophets, an upstate band. Our third submission was an article about a new Gowanus soul club called SRB. The judges wrote “Stories were easy reads; I’d like to visit this community and partake in some of these events which were so brilliantly detailed here.”
Our next second place award was for our initial coverage of Hurricane Sandy, entered in the category “Spot News Coverage.” Spot, or breaking news is usually left to the daily papers, occasionally things happen that are so earth shaking, or shattering, that there is plenty of room for the weekly and bi-weekly publications to report on them as happening, or spot news.
Writing about the hurricane and it’s immediate aftereffects was a monumental task, especially with a staff as small as ours. The two publishers spent day and night in the office, collecting emergency information to disseminate to the hurting community. We went out interviewing people and photographing events and the aftermath day and night. Our issue published November 8th is a lasting document of the carnage and the developing community spirit that has inspired the city and country.
To be thought of as providing the second best coverage of Sandy among all the community newspapers is an enormous compliment, especially as we competed against much larger organizations in areas equally affected by the storm. The judges wrote “Now, this is great community coverage of a storm, and the coverage stands out in a sea of entries related to storm coverage. Bravo. Even if the main “Masterpiece” story had not been so well written and presented, this newspaper was thorough in its reporting before, during and after the storm. The staff is not a big one, but it tended to follow suit with the town – a community looking out for its own. Again, well done!”
Kimberly Gail Price, editor and publisher, won a third place award for a column about her father. It was one of the first columns she wrote for the paper following her ascension to editor in December 2011. Written on the occasion of her father’s 60th birthday, Kimberly recalled many of the things she watched her father do, writing about the positive effects he has had on her own life.
The judges wrote about this column, “The writer has a knack for presenting an issue in a very personal way. A thoroughly enjoyable read.”
Our fourth award was an honorable mention for a special section we published for Valentine’s Day. We sent our reporter on a scavenger hunt through Red Hook, Carroll Gardens and Gowanus. We worked with local stores and restaurants, presenting her and her husband with an enjoyable evening in search of dinner and gifts. They had to figure out clues to complete their trek. Kimberly arranged the trek and wrote the clues, while George baby-sat their child. The judges comment was “This was a most interesting concept.”
Our first place award came in an advertising category – Best Small Space Ad. We submitted a series of ads designed in-house for Freebird, an eccentric Columbia Street bookstore. They were humorous, with headlines such as “Closed Five Days a Week to Thwart Your Literary Needs.”
They were sold and designed by Angelika Mitchell, who was the Star-Revue advertising manager in part of 2012. The judges wrote, “Great ads! Hilarious!”
Our final award was the result of a late night mistake on the part of our layout department, a one-man operation headed by George Fiala. For a full page story on the Red Hook Initiative’s tenth anniversary, “Hick,” instead of “Hook,” was inadvertently typed into the bold headline “Red Hick Initiative celebrates 10 years.” Our sleep deprived co-publisher Kimberly Price, generally an expert proofreader, missed this one.
The judges wrote, “The Red ‘Hick’ Initiative… just too humorous!” For this prize, a trophy was awarded. An embarrassed George walked to the podium accepting a statuette featuring half-a-horse… the rear half.
The two-day convention was held at the Gideon-Putnam Hotel in Saratoga Springs, half an hour north of Albany. In addition to the awards ceremonies, which accompanied lunch and dinners, the convention features educational seminars and a Friday night party where editors, reporters and publishers from all over the state mingle and share war stories.
From Brad Lander:
I’m very pleased to report that – in response to our relentless advocacy – SUNY Downstate Medical Center has withdrawn its proposal to close LICH and has announced plans to identify another operator.
We knew we had to save LICH because LICH saves lives. Over the last three months, thousands of people raised their voices to demand the preservation of our vital healthcare infrastructure. I have been proud to work together with our partners in the Coalition to Save LICH—including NYSNA, 1199SEIU, the Concerned Physicians of LICH, and the Cobble Hill Association—to make our voices heard. And I was especially proud to stand with my colleagues in the New York City Council yesterday and, together with Speaker Quinn and Councilmember Levin, unanimously pass a resolution in support of the fight. Our statement on the news is here.
Today marks an incredible victory for our community. It will still take tough decisions and strong leadership to ensure the future of LICH but with this win we’ve taken a giant leap forward.