33 acres of blight, an absentee landlord, and a neighborhood struggling to improve.
Today in Judge Henry Nowak's Housing Court, an attorney for Central Park Plaza owner of 25 years Samuel Kurz of Brooklyn, NY, stood in for his client as Nowak discussed the escrow account he wants set up so that all rent revenues go directly to making repairs and improvements on the property. When the attorney asked if Kurz could pay utilities from the account, Nowak answered, no. "I expect the money will be in and out quickly for the benefit of the neighborhood," he explained.
This would sound like very good news, except that the enormous parcel is nearly abandoned, with only 8 tenants paying very low rent. It is a sad case of getting what you pay for, and in the case of the tenants - some paying $500/month or less - a lot of what they get is in the form of a pothole-filled parking lot (unplowed in winter), leaky roofs, and the threat of being menaced in a huge, rambling plaza where all of the light posts have been stripped of copper and wire.
Once a thriving center to the neighborhoods around it, the Central Park Plaza has become a scourge where it sits, with most parents disallowing their children from stepping foot there, and little reason to go there at any rate. One of the two retail stores left is a beauty supply shop that keeps its door locked between clients, and when clients do enter, they are forced to step around the pans and buckets that catch water from the always leaky roof. The other is Pee Wee's Variety Store.
"Pee Wee" is Robert Brown, who has operated the market for 4 years and says he's on his own when it comes to repairs to the store he rents from Kurz, whether roof leaks, broken windows or running his own electric to the building, which he did. He says he does his part to stay in the community, holding monthly concerts in the good weather and giving candy to neighborhood children. But on any given work day, the families and children are scarce. A few boys on a side street that borders the plaza answered a fast "uh-uh" to the question of whether or not they cross the chain-link line to enter the plaza.
But there is light on the horizon; the neighborhood committee, named Help Revitalize Central Park Plaza (HRCPP) is headed by Beverly Davis (top photo: second from left), and starting last December, she and other members of HRCPP have made more headway than anyone else has been able to accomplish since 2004, when things started to go particularly bad for the parcel. With the help of Nowak, a Judge typically know for his compassion to residents, while holding negligent landlords' feet to the fire, the community around the plaza is hopeful.
Another coup for the neighborhood is the participation of Michael Macaluso (top photo: right), who has experience with a dramatic neighborhood turn-around. Macaluso and his wife Judy took possession of Morris Manor a few years back, and once they'd kicked out the prostitutes and drug dealers, they became model landlords. Now the building is an anchor in the community, and a haven for those who live in and around it. After one unfortunate incident in which a new tenant was followed home and mugged, another tenant mentioned to Macaluso that he had heard something, but didn't look to see what. Macaluso promptly evicted him for his lack of compassion, saying that everybody needs to look out for everyone else in a real community.
Beverly Davis reined in Macaluso, and his role in Central Park Plaza will be as court-appointed overseer to the property and tenants. Today, he told Judge Nowak that he needs the tools to make proper assessments of the damage and necessary repairs. For a plaza that has scared away most of its tenants and patrons through neglect and blight, the neighbors still hold hope. They want a grocery store to come back, senior housing, student dorms, a park-and-ride. "I just want to be able to go there and have a cup of coffee," one woman said.
And they want a crime camera; one of the buildings that used to house a Mr. 2nd's store is reported to have tow-trucks hauling in cars with no license plates on them, there have been dog fights with carcasses left in the surrounding fields. All of this has been made known to Councilman Demone Smith, who was present at the courthouse and has a good working relationship with HRCPP.
"This neighborhood could be great," Macaluso said though he believes some would call him crazy for saying so. "This could be redeveloped all the way to North Fillmore. It has the potential to be prime property." Still, he says it needs a lot of discussion, and he needs to know exactly what he has to deal with by getting in and talking to renters. In the meanwhile, Judge Nowak scheduled another court appearance for August 11th at 9:30, and HRCPP is confident that Central Park Plaza will see some changes for the better now that it's on Judge Nowak's docket.