Mold Remediation No More Than a Quick Fix

Is RIOC Bumbling Endangering the Cultural Center and Its Users?

Updated 4 weeks ago David Stone
Typical Mold Pattern
Typical Mold Pattern
CCO Public Domain

In 2012, what’s now the Cultural Center was shut down for three years before RIOC finally took possession and reopened it. Remarkably, just two and a half years later, it needs to be shut down again, and for the same reason — water leaks, although the immediate cause is mold.

At 546 Main Street, History of Damaging Water Leaks

In 2012, in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, the situation was worse and the projected shutdown longer, but the root cause is the same. 

Why has it recurred?

More important, what’s RIOC doing to make sure it won’t happen again? 

And again…

The answers:

A) Leaks are recurring because, in spite of three years to get the job done, they were never adequately fixed.

B) RIOC is doing nothing — well, almost nothing — to see that it doesn’t happen in the future.

It’s another instance of RIOC bumbling through a problem in which they aren’t sufficiently invested and of knuckling under to real estate interests who are supposed to be tenants, not absentee community bosses. 

Mold Remediation Quick Fix

Mold remediation is how RIOC defines the project, but mold is a downstream effect, not the root problem, which is historic water leaks from the Urban American owned building at 546 Main Street above the Cultural Center.

“The leaks were always there,” reports a longtime facility user, even before Sandy.

When the place was shutdown from 2012 until 2015, a prolonged boondoggle originally forecast to last six months, the leaks were not fixed, either by the building’s owner or RIOC, but the Cultural Center was opened anyway.

The Cultural Center’s primary tenant is Main Street Theatre & Dance Alliance, and the Roosevelt Island Jewish Congregation uses space for regular services. RIOC also holds meetings in the facility.

Although in a December 4th RIOC Operations Subcommittee meeting, Vice President Shelton Haynes and Consultant Mike Russo played down the hazards, the Center for Disease Control doesn’t agree.

“Exposure to damp and moldy environments may cause a variety of health effects, or none at all. ... For these people, molds can cause nasal stuffiness, throat irritation, coughing or wheezing, eye irritation, or, in some cases, skin irritation. People with mold allergies may have more severe reactions.”

Trying to get to the bottom of the issue of leaks and the mold resulting from them, I asked Haynes in an email, “Can you please explain what responsibility Urban American is accepting for the damages? What about the contractor who did the work for RIOC? Do agree that their work was inadequate? How are they being made accountable? As for RIOC, what inspections were done before reopening and, of course, paying your contractor or contractors?”

Haynes did not fully answer the question.

“RIOC cannot comment regarding any prior construction work done at the Cultural Center without greater specificity as to what work you are referring to. What specific closing or work are you referring to when you mention inspections being completed?” he wrote, although there’s only been one shutdown.”

More concerning was what followed: “RIOC will not issue any comments on Urban America.”

Presumably, Haynes meant to write “American,” not “America.”

But at the December 4th meeting, both he and Russo had plenty to say.

They characterized Urban American as unresponsive to complaints about historic leaks that are, now, not only inconveniencing facility users but also forcing residents to pay for damages by way of RIOC.

Russo described multiple meetings with Urban American, and as disinterested Board Members checked their watches and pulled on their overcoats to leave, he confessed helplessness with, “There are only so many letters you can send.”

With Urban American’s offices just steps away from RIOC’s, it wasn’t clear why letters were being sent or why a tenant was being allowed to ignore a landlord’s request, resulting in more money being spent on a problem that, even in the best scenario will not be fixed.

Mold remediation is no more than treating the symptom. 

Nowhere in the discussions did anyone from RIOC mention doing anything about the leaks.

We asked Urban American to comment for this article, from multiple angles, but got no response.

Danger of Leaks at 546 Main Street

Multiple people describe the leaks as a longtime source of problems at 546 Main Street. 

The Senior Center on the ground floor regularly gets flooded with water from leaking pipes above. Inevitably, those leaks go on to affect the Cultural Center below.

What’s most troubling is that no one seems to have identified the source of the leaks, except for one likely, but intermittent cause: rain water accumulating in a garden area outside the Senior Center where plugged drains aren't doing the job they were built to do.

Senior Center employees say they’ve notified both Urban American and RIOC about that issue without any action being taken.

But it’s the other leaks, persistent over many years, that ought to raise eyebrows because no one has identified their source.

Could it be waste water from toilets and sinks? If it’s fresh water pumped in from City sources, how much is the loss contributing to building costs and ultimately rents?

Is the mold already in the water before leaking, for example, from 546’s water tower?

Why isn’t RIOC demanding more information in the interest of public safety? RIOC reports having the mold tested and — carelessly, we think — declaring it safe, but what about the water?

Where is it coming from? What contaminants are in it? How might this be affecting residents in a building with a high concentration of homebound and senior citizens?

Conclusion

It’s clear that either RIOC and Urban American are not doing enough to diagnose the potential danger and expenses caused by historic leaks or that they are not informing the public about what they know.

It’s clear, also, that the current shutdown will not result in the problem being solved.

Main Street Theatre & Dance will resume classes and performances, the Jewish Congregation will hold services, and the leaks will continue to feed a next generation of mold, which residents will end up paying for in an unrelenting cycle.

Just as RIOC refuses to address ground lease violations in other residential complexes, the State agency seems powerless to deal with the problem in Urban American’s building.

Although Urban American declined comment, sources tell us that RIOC has always been aware of the leaks and opened up the Cultural Center anyway without taking any steps to deal with them. 

Drainage pans, for example might be installed to divert water outside the Cultural Center, instead of allowing it to continue nurturing mold and possibly worse.

And RIOC seems determined to repeat the mistake, treating only the mold colonies that have expanded all the way down to the floors, which will have to be repaired after the mold is removed.

Residents are paying for what can only be described as an ineffective response to a longterm structural problem. 

Because no one is stepping up with a fix, we should expect to pay for the same thing in the not too distant future, accompanied by facility closures and RIOC shrugging their shoulders as if helpless to do anything better.

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