Collapsed Gate May Mean New Life for Neglected Landmark

The collapsed roll-down gate at 502 Canal St. Shown are Ponte Equities representatives, including property manager John Mele, second from left. Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

A graffitied roll-down gate that crashed to the sidewalk last month may have done more to save the 194-year-old, city-designated landmark building it was attached to than all of the city-issued violations and threatened lawsuits had accomplished.

The vacant, dilapidated three-story building, which wraps around the corner of Canal and Greenwich streets (and shares the addresses of 502 Canal and 480 Greenwich) has been a source of concern among preservationists and neighbors for many years. A sidewalk shed, which had appeared to be at least partially supporting the facade, has been in place for as long as neighbors can recall.
In fact, until the Jan. 9 collapse, for years nothing had changed other than the building’s increasingly fragile appearance.

Now a construction fence has been erected outside the building, offering hope that the owner, Ponte Equities, will begin to rehabilitate the structure. Two Department of Buildings violations, for  failure to maintain the site, were issued to Ponte following the collapse.

“Over the years the Historic Districts Council has been concerned about that building and its, quote, demolition by neglect,” said George Calderaro, a member of both the HDC board and Com­munity Board 1. “So we’re cautiously optimistic that the Pontes will do the right thing.”

In 2010, the Landmarks Preservation Commission threatened to file suit against Ponte Equities, claiming “demolition by neglect.” In response, Ponte hired an architecture and engineering firm to come up with plans to restore the building. But there has been no visible sign of work since then. Last November, two years later, the Landmarks Com­mission again threatened to take action against Ponte and again the owners filed plans with the Landmarks Commission and the De­partment of Buildings.

Once more, no suit was filed because the owner “demonstrat[ed] that he planned to make the necessary repairs to stabilize the building, and filed an application for a permit to do the work,” Landmarks spokeswoman Elisabeth de Bourbon said. Landmarks issued a permit for the work back in November. The Department of Buildings, however, has so far disapproved the application.
Standing outside the building after the collapse, John Mele, property manager for Ponte Equities, said the company has been working to come up with approved plans and “this [incident] is going to make it go faster.”

“We’re spending a lot of money to restore it,” Mele said, denying charges by critics that the own­er is ne­glecting the building so that it will collapse on its own.

“That’s not in our interest,” he said. “We’d have to rebuild it.”
Asked why it has taken so long to restore the building, he said that Ponte, which owns at least 30 buildings in the neighborhood, according the Real Deal, has many properties to look after.

Mele said the company’s planned restoration of 502 Canal Street is part of a three-building residential project that includes the two contiguous buildings to the west, 504 and 506 Canal. Those three buildings, along with 508 Canal Street, are called by the Landmarks Com­mission “a rare surviving cluster of early 19th-century buildings.”

In a letter to Landmarks Preservation  Commission Chair John Tierney last August, a month after the DOB cited the owner for failure to maintain the sidewalk shed, along with other complaints, CB1 Chair Catherine McVay Hughes wrote, “Given the ongoing neglect and ad­vanced state of deterioration of 480 Greenwich Street/502 Canal Street, we urge you to take action immediately to prevent the destruction of this landmark.”

In October, the DOB sent an emergency response team to the building and issued a violation to the owners after reports that there were “serious cracks/­gaps in the brickwork” and a metal gate was falling off the building.

Robert Verdier, who lives next door, has long been calling on the Landmarks Preservation Com­mis­sion to help protect the building.

“Part of the reason I live down here, and a lot of folks live down here, is the neighborhood character,” Verdier said. “And it’s historic buildings like that that give the neighborhood its soul.”


‘Can’t Believe We Gotta Get Out’

Crumbling 502 Canal Street is part of a trio of historic buildings that the owners, Ponte Equities, say they want to develop into a single residential project. Just one family remains, in number 506, and they have been there for nearly 50 years.

“I just can’t believe we gotta get out of here,” said Dennis Healy, 58, who lives in the apartment with his parents, Frank and Frances, who are in their 80s, an aunt, Alice Murgalo, 95, and Murgalo’s daughter, Mary Jane Murgalo.

Healy, who runs a bike repair shop and flea market in number 504, said that his father has rejected as unsuitable other Ponte-owned apartments shown to him and he can’t imagine how they could ever move.

“You know how much my father and mother and aunt collected over the years?” said Healy, surrounded by his own large and eclectic assortment of goods.
In any case, it is unclear where the family, with their longtime monthly rent of $500, can move. “My father’s waiting for a decent apartment but I don’t think it’s going to happen,” Healy said.

“It’s hard to find them a comparable apartment,” said Ponte property manager John Mele, adding, “We’re not going to throw them out.”