Showdown Brews Over Facility For Mentally Ill

Diane J. Savino

September 21, 2008

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- Saint Vincent Catholic Medical Centers (SVCMC) in Manhattan is in for an almost-certain legal battle over its controversial plan to convert a former convent in St. George to apartments for the mentally ill.

Some local leaders are vowing to fight SVCMC to the finish unless, as Assemblyman Matthew Titone (D-North Shore) put it last week, the plan is either dropped or "hard-core, legally enforceable guidelines" are put into place to ensure that the state won't refer ex-convicts from Sing Sing or drug addicts to a place where 50 nuns once resided.

Titone said he doesn't trust SVCMC's "good neighbor agreement," which guarantees that only vigorously screened Islanders -- not drug addicts, sex offenders or newly released prisoners -- will live in the 59 apartments to be created in the convent on Fort Place, a leafy block made up of mostly one- and two-family homes, co-ops and at least one single-room occupancy hotel.

"Let's talk about their good-neighbor agreement and understand that there is no legal authority or enforceability of that ridiculous piece of paper. It's a sham," Titone said.

Gabor & Marotta, the law firm Titone is affiliated with, drafted a lawsuit he said will be filed unless he and state Sen. Diane Savino (D-North Shore/Brooklyn) can get reassurances from the governor's office.

Henry J. Amoroso, who took over as president and CEO of the Manhattan hospital system last year, is trying to reassure politicians and skeptical neighbors about the convent. He has said Staten Islanders suffering from depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia and already living in nearby transitional housing run by SVCMC will be selected for the new, permanent apartments.

"They are the sons and daughters of Staten Island and they are in transition now and they are simply hopeful that they, too, will have a permanent place to live," Amoroso said. "At the end of the day, housing will be provided for people who need it -- people from Staten Island."

The fate of the convent has become one of the most contentious issues for St. George residents. They point to a recent upzoning of the community and signs that gentrification is imminent -- a renaissance threatened now by SVCMC's plan to open what will be its largest single residence in the borough for the mentally ill.