Volume 20 Issue 13 | August 10 - 16, 2007

Downtown Express photos by Elisabeth Robert

Sheila Levine works out with others in the Gateway Plaza seniors group’s exercise program. The Gateway seniors are hoping to attract more neighborhood men to their programs.

Yes, seniors live in B.P.C., but their nature is not retiring

By Skye H. McFarlane

On the topic of museum visits, the women of the Gateway Plaza seniors group were of one mind – they wanted to see the city’s smaller, more unique galleries and they didn’t want any stodgy tour guides telling them what to look at.

“We can arrive together and we’ll leave together and we can go have lunch, but in between, you see what you want to see,” said Patricia Westcott as she pitched the museum trip idea at one of the senior group’s regular meetings on Monday morning.

Though the concept was well-received, picking a date proved problematic. Shuffling through calendars and planners, the two dozen, well-coiffed older ladies ticked of times that would not work. Not Monday mornings (exercise class). Not August (people are traveling). Nothing in early September (the Jewish high holidays). Finally, they settled on the fourth Tuesday of every month, starting with a Sept. 25 trip to the Fraunces Tavern Museum on the east side of Lower Manhattan.

Just a year into its existence, the seniors group arranges an ever-expanding array of activities and has members living in Gateway and other parts of Battery Park City. The vigor with which the group tackles leisure time likely bodes well for its next, far more serious project – the fight to keep Gateway Plaza affordable.

Since its inception, Battery Park City has always been thought of as a place for young people. In the ‘80s, it was considered an ideal location for single Wall Streeters to live before settling down, and later more and more young families moved into the neighborhood. Today the preschools and schools continue to get more crowded, but the number of senior citizens is also growing.

Many of the older folks (they wish there was a word other than “seniors”) have lived at Gateway for 10, 20 or even 25 years. Some moved to the hulking 1982 complex before there were even paved roads in Battery Park City. They chose Gateway for a variety of reasons – reasonable rent, proximity to the Financial District, river views and park access – and they watched the neighborhood grow and change, particularly after 9/11.

Felice Cohen, a petite blonde with a pair of oversized Jackie O. sunglasses, said Monday that she didn’t blame middle-class families for moving away from the dust and the chaos after 9/11. She was saddened, though, that the 1700-unit complex became more of a “revolving door.”

“The demographics changed dramatically after 9/11,” Cohen said, referring to the wealthier residents that have moved into Gateway and other Battery Park City buildings in the last six years. “I would have left if I had small kids or respiratory problems, but we stayed….By 2002, where could we afford this kind of space? Where would we go?”

With their neighbors gone, some of Gateway’s older women began looking for a way to get together, to have a little fun on their own terms.

“We had nothing for seniors [at Gateway],” said Edith Chevat, one of the group’s founders. “There was a book club, but we started that 15 years ago. We were older, but we weren’t quite seniors then.”

Cohen said she tried to go to other senior centers in the area, but they felt more like nursing homes than activity hubs. So, the Gateway ladies looked at model senior programs in other cities. They dialed in help from the City’s Dept. for the Aging, as well as the offices of City Councilmember Alan Gerson and Borough President Scott Stringer. They passed surveys around the complex, asking seniors what types of activities they’d like to see. And after much negotiation, they secured the Battery Park City Parks Conservancy’s community room on W. Thames St. as a meeting place on Monday and Friday mornings.

As it stands now, the group has about 70 members who participate in at least one activity and most are in their 70s or early 80s. The group has no dues and no official name. It operates via a loose hierarchy, with founder Ruth Meyers running the meetings and about six other women, including Chevat and Cohen, serving as go-to organizers and volunteers.

Although the group shares some goals with the seniors at the private Hallmark assisted living center in north Battery Park City – such as the desire for benches at local bus stops – the two senior sects do not interact much.

Nevertheless, Chevat said that a few Hallmark residents do venture down for some of the activities, which include walking, exercise class, table games and book and movie clubs. The group has brought in special speakers to talk about arthritis and is planning a Circle Line boat cruise on Aug. 20. The seniors will also be manning a flea market at the Battery Park City Neighbors Association block party in September.

But as the program expands, the group faces three major challenges. The first is a lack of space. The seniors have had trouble finding places to hold their activities and their limited mobility restricts their options. They look forward to the Manhattan Youth Community Center on Warren St., which is set to open next spring. The center plans to provide some pool time and classroom space for senior activities.

The second challenge is a lack of men at the group’s activities. To solve that problem, the ladies are aiming to start up a poker night. But as the lone gentleman at Monday’s meeting pointed out, Gateway’s older men may show up on their own as the group begins to tackle its third main problem – the fear that the group’s members may be forced out of the neighborhood at the end of 2009 if Gateway’s rent stabilization agreement is not renewed.

“What you are talking about now really attracts everyone,” said Leo, a two-year resident of Gateway who did not give his last name. “Everybody needs to be educated or re-educated on this.”

Even to the well-read group at Gateway, the complex’s rent rules are confusing, since they are controlled by a private contract rather than public programs like rent control, Mitchell-Lama or the Martin Act, which governs condo conversions. Under a private agreement with the LeFrak Organization, which owns the complex, Gateway’s apartments rent at market rate, but rent increases are tied to the city’s rent stabilization guidelines. In 2005, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver used his position in state government to broker a deal that extended the Gateway rent stabilization for five more years in exchange for letting LeFrak refinance its bonds.

Although the current agreement extends until Dec. 31, 2009, the seniors – and other residents – have already begun to fret about the future since this time around, there may not be any leverage to force LeFrak into extending the stabilization. If the complex were to go market rate, those who have been in their apartments the longest would be hit by the steepest rent increases.

The topic brought heated debate at Monday’s meeting about lawyers and meetings and local politicians, but in the end, the group decided that gaining knowledge would be the first step to asserting their power. They vowed to bring in a housing expert, perhaps a tenant lawyer, to explain the situation and the potential legal options. They also decided to call upon Linda Belfer, a Community Board 1 member and president of the Gateway Plaza Tenants’ Association, to share her knowledge with the seniors’ group.

Come September, the seniors will also have their own representative on C.B. 1. Ruth Ohman was appointed last week to serve out the partial term of a board member who left last spring. But until a big senior meeting can be organized, Meyers urged her group members to keep spreading the word.

“We are going to need a big group to fight [for] rent stabilization…So if you see a gray-haired person on the street, stop them and say, ‘Do you know we have a group and this is what we are going to be doing?’” Meyers said, later adding, “We seniors have one big advantage – we vote.”

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