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Queens Chronicle

Artist studios shut after collapse

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Posted: Thursday, April 16, 2009 12:00 am

A jewelry designer is in the hospital, and about 90 artists have had to vacate their studios after a staircase on a Long Island City building collapsed on Friday.

The five-story building, called Five Pointz and located at 45-46 Davis St., houses artists’ studios and is known for the colorful graffiti art that covers its facade. A concrete staircase snakes its way up the front of the building, and shortly after 5 p.m. on Friday, a 20-foot section between the third and fourth stories gave way.

Nicole Gagne, 37, who was on the staircase at the time, was buried under the rubble. The FDNY extracted her and transported her to Bellevue Hospital, where she remains in fair condition.

A preliminary investigation by the Department of Buildings found that the collapse of the staircase was caused by neglect and failure to maintain the building, although an official from G&M Realty, which owns the building, said the company takes good care of its facilities and didn’t know anything was wrong with the staircase prior to the collapse.

“To even mention neglect is ridiculous,” said the official, who declined to be named.

The New York City Buildings Department ordered the building to be vacated and issued four violations to G&M.

The violations, which could carry penalties of up to $25,000 each, are for failure to maintain the building and for occupying the building contrary to the certificate of occupancy, according to Carly Sullivan, a spokeswoman for the Buildings Department. G&M did not have permission to convert the former factory into art studios, she said.

Before anyone is allowed back in, the owner must install “sidewalk sheds,” which are structures that cover the sidewalk outside the building, and must remove loose concrete on the building’s exterior, Sullivan said.

The G&M official said those measures are almost complete and added that both sets of exterior stairs will be removed from the building in the next few weeks. He said he hopes the Buildings Department will re-inspect in the next couple of days so that artists can have access to their studios again soon.

“I get calls every day from the artists asking, ‘When can we go back in?’” the G&M official said.

Becket Bowes, a painter and sculptor who has a studio in Five Pointz, said he arrived at the building on Saturday to find the place sealed off. Bowes hasn’t been allowed in to work or even to collect his belongings.

“It’s a problem work-wise,” he said, adding that he had several appointments lined up which will be hard to keep without access to his studio.

Bowes said he isn’t surprised the stairs collapsed, explaining that they had seemed shaky for some time.

“I never went down those stairs,” he said. “They scared the hell out of me. … It was an accident waiting to happen.”

The G&M official, however, said he had never received complaints or concerns about the stairs.

“If you look up at the other staircase that’s still there, it looks solid as a rock,” he said, adding that the section that collapsed had appeared equally sturdy.

“I walk up there all the time,” the official said. “I never had any idea that anything was wrong. … If there was a concern, we would have taken care of it immediately.”

The consequences of G&M’s alleged violations are as yet undetermined. The city’s Environmental Control Board is responsible for deciding the severity of penalties and will hold a hearing about the matter on June 2.

G&M Realty has owned the Five Pointz building for 37 years. The 90-year-old facility used to be a factory and was converted to artist studios about six years ago. The artists are subsidized, paying only for utilities.

“We don’t make any money on it,” the G&M official said, explaining that he appreciates the work the artists do and seeks to benefit the community by offering studio space to them at a minimal cost.

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