Imminent domain: Pol takes 2nd swing at saving senior center via gov’t seizure

Coming out Swinging: Toddlers and oldsters rally to save Swinging Sixties community center
Photo by Stefano Giovannini

A Williamsburg pol is going back to the drawing board after the bill he wrote to save an embattled senior center left officials scared it would allow the government to seize properties willy-nilly.

The latest legislation comes nearly a year after the last attempt by Assemblyman Joseph Lentol (D–Williamsburg) to pass a law to allow the city to use eminent domain to take over the three-story Ainslie Street building that houses the Swinging Sixties Senior Center, to keep its owners from evicting it. The first bill passed the Assembly but stalled in the Senate, and the new version is being written so that it can only ever be used to target that particular building on the corner of Manhattan Avenue, Lentol said.

“We need to clarify this so that it is not an overreach and it is used for a reasonable purpose,” he said. “If there was ever a reason to take property, this is it.”

The 40-year-old Swinging Sixties center, which offers activities for hundreds of seniors and hosts Community Board 1 meetings, has, along with the Small World Daycare and Learning Center, been embroiled in a protracted fight for is life since 2012, when both operations temporarily lost city funding.

The funding returned when the centers’ users put up a stink, but in November, 2013 father-and-son team Victor and Harry Einhorn bought the building for $4.5 million, $1.5 million less than the amount offered by housing-advocacy group Saint Nick’s Alliance, which has been trying to save the hub. The Einhorns quickly moved to raise the rent and, the following month, sent their new tenants eviction notices.

Advocates for the center have managed to keep the eviction tied up in court for the last year, and last week a judge granted a temporary reprieve. But that court order is only supposed to last a few months.

The lawyers are now trying to extend the order to allow time for the latest bill to pass, Lentol said. The earlier version of the legislation only applied to facilities built with public funds that have been used for public programs for more than 25 years, but the new one is going to be even more specific, including the length of the lease and the specific programs in the building, he said.

“We want to make this bill as narrow in its scope as possible,” Lentol said.

The law should be ready to introduce in January, he said.

More than 50 seniors, parents of small children, and concerned neighbors rallied on Monday morning on the steps of City Hall, calling for pols to join the campaign to save the center.

“We are very hopeful that, with the unwavering support of our elected officials, we’ll succeed and get the administration’s support to purchase the building and get it back in the hands of the community,” said Phil Caponegro, president of Williamsburg’s Conselyea Street Block Association.

Seniors on hand said they were hopeful that all the effort could pay off.

“We think we can win this fight,” said Frankie Geiger, 65, whose mother and father also frequented the center in the 1980s and 1990s. “I really hope they can do something. This is like a second home to me.”

A founder of the center believes the Einhorns plan to tear down the building and construct luxury housing on the spot. Current zoning allows for a six or seven-story residential building there.

Reach reporter Danielle Furfaro at dfurf‌aro@c‌ngloc‌al.com or by calling (718) 260–2511. Follow her at twitt‌er.com/‌Danie‌lleFu‌rfaro.
Assemblyman Joseph Lentol
Community Newspaper Group / Aaron Short