A shabby Midtown hotel the city plans to turn into a homeless shelter is a dangerous firetrap with only one means of exit from the upper floors — a narrow staircase that dead-ends in the lobby, far from the street exit.
So says the former top city official who for years picked shelter sites for the Department of Homeless Services (DHS). “I think it’s insane,” says Robert Skallerup, DHS’ director of facilities from 2002 to 2009.
The agency where he once worked insists the former Park Savoy Hotel on W. 58th St. is legal even though the current building code requires that all residential buildings taller than four stories must have at least two means of egress.
The city says there’s no violation because the hotel was built in 1910, long before the two-egress requirement took effect. The single-egress is, they say, “grandfathered” in.
But Skallerup and two former FDNY veterans, who have reviewed the city’s plans as part of a lawsuit filed by neighbors who oppose the shelter, say that although it may be legal, it’s a recipe for disaster.
Skallerup was DHS’ deputy commissioner of facilities management from 2002 until his retirement in 2011 during the Bloomberg administration. He was charged with finding locations for new shelters, and says if he walked into a building over four stories tall and there was only one means of exit, he would immediately take that spot off his list as a potential shelter.
In the years since Skallerup left DHS, the homeless population in the city has risen steadily, hitting 53,000 when de Blasio arrived at City Hall in 2014 and peaking at 63,000 last December. Since then it’s plateaued — the count was 60,868 as of last week.
The selection of the Park Savoy is part of the mayor’s push to open 90 new shelters by 2023. This plan was announced in February 2017 with the idea of opening 18 to 20 shelters each year for five years. In the 21 months since, only 12 shelters have been opened.
The Park Savoy shelter plan was announced in January and generated fury by the building’s well-heeled neighbors, who objected to it for a variety of not-in-my-backyard reasons. Over the summer, they added the fire safety issues to their lawsuit.
The city will pay $61 million over nine years to a non-profit, Westhab, which will pay $2.6 million a year in rent to the building owners, city officials said. With a capacity for 150 homeless men, that factors out to about $17,000 in rent a year per shelter resident, which city officials say is in line with rents in that area.
On Friday a Fire Department spokesman, Frank Dwyer, said a fire alarm and communication system have been installed for the entire building, with a full-time fire safety team on site.
Dwyer said all the rooms and hallways from floors two through nine are “fully sprinklered” while floor one and the basement are partially sprinkled. Permits filed by the owners with the Buildings Department make no mention of sprinklers inside rooms – just sprinklers throughout the building in the hallways and stairwell.
“The Fire Department has reviewed the fire safety features for this facility, which exceeds what is required by law and provides layers of protection,” he wrote in response to News’ questions. “The 107-year-old fireproof building has never been safer, in terms of fire protection.”
In this case, the city says because the building is “grandfathered,” it doesn’t require two means of egress. Skallerup says this way of thinking makes no sense, using the example of automobile seat belts.
“They weren’t really required in cars until about 1965 or 1966,” he said. “Before then seat belts weren’t required. But they still had the option. Parents could put their kids in a car built before 1965 without a seat belt, but they wouldn’t because it’s insane.”
The city, he argued, is “using the code for permission to do something that is unethical.”
Robert Kruper, who retired from the Fire Department in 2002 and is now a fire safety consultant hired by the neighbors who brought suit, says the city’s use of the “grandfather” clause “allows you to say what was safe 100 years ago is safe today. I don’t think that’s a very common-sense approach to anything in life.”
He notes that the single stairway runs down the center of the building and is extremely narrow, which would create a traffic jam for residents trying snaking their way down during a fire while firefighters in full gear try to make their way up. The elevator is tiny and the stairway does not connect directly to the street but to a narrow lobby next to a kitchen. If there’s a fire in the lobby or kitchen, exiting that way would be extremely dangerous, he said.
“It’s a dangerous building. There’s one exit. There’s one means of egress — a narrow winding staircase. If there’s a fire that touches that staircase no one above the fire can come down the stairwell.”
In an affidavit filed in the court case, Kruper invoked the 1990 fire at the Happyland Social Club in the Bronx, when 87 people died after an enraged club-goer who’d been kicked out poured gasoline at the entrance and lit a match. As the Daily News noted at the time, the patrons inside the illegal club were either overcome by smoke or trampled to death rushing to the club’s single exit.
The lawsuit is now before Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Alexander Tisch, who’s expected to render a decision soon.