I-Team: Harlem Building's Toxic History Not Revealed To Tenants

Some tenants say they have been using the building for years, spending eight and ten hours a day inside

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    NEWSLETTERS

    State officials say a massive building in Harlem is toxic, after hazardous waste was disposed there years ago. But the I-Team discovered dozens of people working in the building right now -- who were never told about the hazardous conditions before signing on to rent. Chris Glorioso reports.

    Dozens of artists, entrepreneurs and non-profits are renting space in a Harlem building with a toxic past, and they were never told before signing rental agreements, NBC 4 New York's I-Team has learned.

    In fact, some tenants say they have been using the building for years, spending eight and ten hours a day inside.

    Syn Martinez, who runs a fitness boot camp in the building, said he would not have rented space there if he knew it was a Superfund site.

    Martinez is among dozens of small business owners and artists renting space in the building. All said they were never told the building contained potentially hazardous vapors or toxic material.

    The building at 2350 Fifth Ave. was listed by the state Department of Environmental Conservation as a “Class 2 Superfund site” in 1998.

    It is, according to state records, an Inactive Hazardous Waste Disposal Site, and poses “a significant threat to the public health or environment.”

    “My children are dropped off here every day, or were dropped off here every day,” said Albert Elkerson. “My grandson played in my office for years.”

    Elkerson said he learned of the building’s history during a rental dispute with the longtime owner and current landlords, Alexander and Joseph Karten.

    The Kartens' lawyer declined to comment to the I-Team. 

    Elkerson said he believes the landlord had a responsibility to tell him the building was a contaminated site. 

    He also alleges the address on the outside of the Harlem building, and on the rental agreements, was altered to hide the building’s history.

    “We were under the impression we were at 2340 Fifth Avenue,” said Elkerson.

    A plaque reading “2340” currently hangs over the main door of the building, concealing the address underneath which appears to read “2350.”

    An Internet search of 2340 Fifth Ave. shows nothing of the building’s history or its current status as a hazardous Superfund site, but a search of its former address, 2350, reveals much more.

    At a recent summit of building occupants, tenant after tenant insisted they had never been informed of the toxic vapors. In a recent visit to the building, a single DEC fact sheet was posted among a clutter of other invitations and advertisements on a community bulletin board near the building’s entrance. Some tenants insisted that fact sheet was only posted in recent months -- never visible before rental agreements were signed.

    “It’s more about them covering themselves now,” Elkerson said.

    The building was originally constructed in 1923 as a Borden Ice Cream factory with additions built in the 1930s and 1950s.

    From 1970 to 1994, it was a commercial laundry facility and dry cleaner that used a chemical called tetrachloroethylene -- also known as PCE -- as a cleaning solvent.  The solvent contaminated the soil and ground water around the building and is believed to have been trapped in part of the building’s floor slab insulation, which was necessary for refrigeration when it was an ice cream factory.

    For a short time in the 1990s, part of the building was even used as a school, PS 141, but was shut down. Soon after, the state listed the address as a state Superfund site.

    In recent years, a company called American Self-Storage rented the building from the Kartens.

    When asked if the landlords were required to notify tenants of the building’s history, DEC spokewoman Emily DeSantis said the landlords are only required to notify primary tenants, not subtenants – and the DEC considers the artists, entrepreneurs and non-profits subtenants.

    New York State’s environmental law clearly states air quality tests must be disclosed on rental agreements “in 12-point boldface type on the first page of the agreement and read, ‘NOTIFICATION  OF  TEST  RESULTS. The  property  has been  tested for contamination of indoor air:  test results and additional information are available upon request.’”

    DeSantis said the DEC does not consider the above law to be enforceable in the case of 2350 Fifth Ave.

    “The site is not yet subject to this requirement. It will [be] subject to this requirement once the remedy is fully implemented,” she wrote in an email to the I-Team.  

    Given that interpretation of the law, air-quality disclosures would not have to be written into rental agreements during the decades it sometimes takes for environmental remediation to commence.

    It has been 14 years since 2350 Fifth Ave. was declared a toxic site. Remediation is not yet complete.

    After a legal fight with American Self-Storage – in which the company claimed it was also not properly informed of the Superfund status -- the Kartens regained control of the building several months ago.

    Current tenants now have rental agreements with a new company formed by Joseph Karten. The agreement includes no notification of air quality issues.

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