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Seniors keep waiting for Centre St. center to open

By Ronda Kaysen
April 1 - 7, 2005. Downtown Express [link]

Project Open Door, a Chinatown senior center, is still waiting to move into its new home in a luxury condo on Centre St. -- four years after the city secured the space for it.

"Our clients, most of them are very old," said Po-Ling Ng, Project Open Door's director. "They want to move to the new site, but since 1993, when we first got this space, someone keeps saying, 'Oh, I'm sorry' [when the process is further delayed] and now it's 2005. We are suffering over here," Ng said, in a telephone interview from the center's current Chrystie St. location. "We don't have enough space."

The new space would occupy the bottom two floors of the celebrity-studded condominium at 240 Centre St. known as the Police Building, once home to supermodels Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington and Linda Evangelista, along with tennis star Steffi Graf and actress Winona Ryder.

Initially the condo owners, who ceded the space to the city in the early 1990s as part of a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreement, were reluctant to hand over 17,000 sq. ft. of their building to the senior center, citing concerns about the effects that 500 daily visitors to the center would have on their building. Their main concerns included odors from the meals served at the center, hours of operation, trash, visitors and other quality of life concerns.

In February 2001, the city announced that after years of negotiations with the condo owners, a settlement had been reached and Project Open Door would soon be able to relocate to a home four times the size of its current, cramped quarters.

Parts of the agreement included that there would be no cooking on the premises of the senior center and that the seniors would use a separate entrance from the one used by residents of the tony building.

"Since the settlement, everything has gone relatively smoothly," said Arthur Emil, president of both the commercial and residential condo and co-op boards for the building. "Nobody has been resistant of the senior center," he added.

Despite the agreement and the placated Police Building residents, Project Open Door, which offers meals, activities and support to Chinatown's ballooning elderly community, has yet to relocate.

Yet, city officials insist the delays will soon come to an end and Project Open Door will be able to move to its new home within the year.

"It had been stalled previously, but it is now in the final phases and construction has resumed," said City Councilmember Alan Gerson of the center in his district. Gerson blames the delays on a "lack of cooperation from the management of the building" and "technical issues involving the work that had to be done."

Gerson expects the work to be completed before the summer.

The city's Department of Aging, which is responsible for the development of the center, is less certain of the project's timeline. "I just don't have a firm date," said Christopher Miller, a Department of Aging spokesperson. "It all depends on the condo, on when the senior center is going to move and on Con Edison."

Con Edison began rewiring the building this week, which has been the cause of the most recent delays, Miller said. The electrical problems are the result of a leak in the building caused by electrical work that was done earlier in the construction, according to Emil.

Despite Project Open Door's eagerness to move, Emil insists the delays are the result of the troubles associated with such a dramatic renovation. "The city would have moved in yesterday," he said. "But everything has to be done properly."


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