By Raanan Geberer, Brooklyn Daily Eagle
The management company running student housing in the historic St. George Hotel has scotched rumors that a change in use was in the works for the building at 100 Henry St. in Brooklyn Heights. One of the colleges that’s been placing students there has also denied speculation being spread by a Brooklyn Heights activist who worried that the facility might revert to its former use as a home to subsidized and mentally-ill tenants.
Despite the denials, even a hint of such an occurrence raises a spectral blight from the 1970s. Brooklyn Heights had eight marginal hotels operating at that time, and most were filled with welfare tenants and recently-released mental patients placed by city agencies.
Time, political pressure and a changing marketplace cured the problem for all eight hotels: the St. George, the Margaret, the Standish Harbor, the Standish Arms, the Bossert, the Montague, the Pierrepont and the Towers. Several were taken over and rehabilitated by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society.
Educational Housing Services (EHS) has been providing housing to students from a wide variety of colleges since the early 2000s, when it began to renovate the hotel. It currently uses three wings of the hotel — the Studio, Weller and Clark residences.
Jeffrey Smith, a long-tme resident of Monroe Place known for alarmist rhetoric, said that “two responsible sources” in the neighborhood told him that the student population is dropping, and that if it drops “to a certain point, either by statute law or by agency policy, they have to open the St. George to other housing.”
Smith first said he meant “Section 8 housing,” but then said he wasn’t specifically referring to the federal Section 8 program. He said this was a “generalized street term” that means “welfare or ex-offender or generally crime — it [the St. George] would resemble what it was before the students came.”
Christy Chatfield, senior vice president for student life for EHS, said the company is not planning to change the number of students in the hotel and is committed to maintaining it as a student residence. The EHS website shows that it is advertising all three buildings as student dorms and is actively recruiting students.
On a recent Sunday morning, a steady stream of young people entered and exited the hotel’s student entrance. When asked if they have noticed any marked decrease in the number of students or increase in empty rooms, most said no. One, who asked not to be mentioned by name, said that Pace University had removed many of its students, although about 200 remained, and that EHS was seeking to replace those students.
The answer to this may be found on Pace’s website, which reveals that last fall, the school opened a new residence of its own at 182 Broadway in Lower Manhattan. In addition, the college is constructing a 34-story dorm on Beekman Street, set to open next year.
Asked about this, Chatfield said she “couldn’t comment on the future of our clients’ housing needs,” but referred the Brooklyn Eagle to Pace’s housing office. A staffer there said Pace planned to continue to use the St. George for the coming year.
The St. George was once a grand hotel that drew celebrities and was known for its huge banquet room and giant saltwater pool, the site of which is now occupied by the Eastern Athletic Club. Billy Joel wrote about the hotel’s deterioration in 1968 in his song “Hotel St. George” (“Where once their ladies stood/Now stands a beggar man”). Part of the hotel, the St. George Tower on Hicks Street, was detached from it and became a co-op.
By the early 1990s, the St. George was used to house homeless people with AIDS. This era came to an end in 1995 with a fire that was one of the largest in the city’s history.
Section 51-01 of the city’s Building Code, relating to student dormitories, says nothing about their reverting to other uses if the student population falls below a particular threshold. Similarly, Brooklyn housing attorney Dominick Napoletano, a past president of the Brooklyn Bar Association, told the Eagle that he was unaware of any such provision.