Exultant, GMHC Opens Its New Home

In a celebratory ribbon-cutting ceremony buoyed by praise from elected officials, Gay Men’s Health Crisis formally opened its new home on West 33rd Street –– an inviting, spanking new facility that combines units of the agency that had sprawled over many floors on West 24th Street into two spacious floors, connected by an internal staircase and encompassing 165,000 square feet in total.

For GMHC’s chief executive officer, Dr. Marjorie Hill, the April 29 event was a triumph of sorts, coming just one year after the agency’s plans for moving out of its Chelsea headquarters, located between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, was encountering bitter and highly public resistance –– from some members of its Client Advisory Board, from some longtime supporters, and even from some colleagues in the AIDS world.

The criticisms were broadly diverse –– from concern over the potential for losing the coveted hot-meals program to objections to the severing of a long-standing sub-lease arrangement with a clinic run by the New York Presbyterian-Weill Cornell Medical Center, to the relocation to the far West Side, between Ninth and Tenth Avenues, and even to the configuration of the entrance.

In symbolic response to the distress many clients voiced about the risk that GMHC’s daily hot lunches and its Friday evening dinners would become relics of the past, the ribbon-cutting was held in the agency’s spacious new dining room that boasts not only large windows, bordered with stenciled graphics provided by the Keith Haring Foundation, across its entire north wall, but also an industrial kitchen with brand new equipment fully able to continue the hot-meal tradition.

After making oblique reference to last year’s controversy –– welcoming a crowd of well over 100 to the new space that she said “some people were worried about” –– Hill said the new dining room and its offerings are “state of the art.”

State Senator Tom Duane, the out gay Chelsea Democrat who is Albany’s only openly HIV-positive legislator, affectionately noted the frequency with which GMHC, the world’s oldest AIDS service organization, finds itself in the thick of controversy.

“GMHC is the leader of the fight,” Duane said. “The target of the fight. In the middle of the fight.”

Congressman Jerrold Nadler, another Democrat, whose district encompasses both the agency’s old home and its new facility, recalled teaming up with GMHC in the late 1980s when as a member of the State Assembly he fought to bring down the cost of AZT.

Today, his House staff works with the agency’s Washington policy team every year to fight for increases –– or at least hold off reductions –– in federal spending on the Ryan White AIDS Care Act, on prevention efforts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and on the Housing Opportunities for People With AIDS Act (HOPWA).

“GMHC is one of the most important organizations on this planet,” Nadler declared.

In light of the fractious dispute last spring over the proposed move –– the high cost of lease renewal on 24th Street made staying there unfeasible –– a presentation by David Valdez, who headed up the real estate committee of the board of directors over the several-year hunt for a new home, was particularly enlightening.

A real estate professional who now works out of Florida, Valdez stated flatly, “We ended up in the very best possible position.”

Guided by a team led by Cushman and Wakefield, chosen after interviews with the top six real estate companies in Manhattan, and with a pro bono contribution of at least $800,000 from the law firm of Davis, Polk, GMHC, Valdez said, carried out “the smartest, most well-advised, most successful” location search among recent New York City transactions. The outcome, he said, was “spectacular from an economic standpoint” –– and will result in savings of tens of millions of dollars over the eight-year life of the new lease.

After inspecting at least 30 sites and putting in bids on 15, the agency completed a deal that, in a comparison of 150 recent Manhattan leases involving at least 50,000 square feet of space, was the second-least expensive of the lot.

In remarks Hill made during the ceremony, in comments to Gay City News afterward, and in a tour that Janet Weinberg, GMHC’s chief operating officer, conducted for the newspaper, the agency responded to some of last year’s critiques, but also made an affirmative case for why it continues to hold a unique place among organizations delivering AIDS services in New York.

Some critics were sensitive over the fact that the entrance to GMHC, at 446 West 33rd Street, would be separate from the office facilities that house Associated Press next door at 450. Several charged that a form of apartheid was at play, with an HIV-positive population, many of them people of color, being kept away from a white-collar workforce.

Hill stated that the entrance built for the agency speeds clients to their destination –– by freeing them from the neighboring building’s stringent security procedures and offering them an express elevator –– and provides desirable discretion and privacy to those who continue to feel a stigma about their health status.

In fact, the experience of entering the new GMHC headquarters is considerably more relaxed than going into a typical Midtown office building –– or, in fact, into its old location on 24th Street.

Hill pointed to the new express bus lanes on 34th Street in responding to concerns about the new facility’s location an avenue and a half west of the Penn Station’s Eighth Avenue exit. Manny Rivera, who for the past three years has been a client member of the board of directors and explained that he worked hard a year ago to bring together unhappy clients and agency leadership, said the expedited express lane travel time and a bus frequency of every ten minutes mitigate the concern he originally had over the new site.

Dr. Roy M. Gulik, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Weill Cornell Medical College, who has oversight of the HIV clinic Cornell runs in GMHC’s old building, is less persuaded that the agency’s new location does not impose burdens on those it serves.

“I am mostly concerned about some of our clients, some of whom are disabled, walking that far,” Gulik said, explaining that many of the Cornell clinic’s 1,200 clients are among the 8,000 HIV-positive New Yorkers who use services at GMHC. In addition to providing medical care to HIV-positive clients, the Cornell clinic also runs clinical trials, some of them involving uninfected, but at-risk populations.

For Gulik, staying in the heart of Chelsea, which he noted has the highest HIV seroprevalence rate in the city, is critical for Cornell. A year ago, he voiced considerable unhappiness at GMHC’s lack of consultation with his clinic over its planned move, saying it upended Cornell’s build-out costs for its medical facility. The clinic, no longer a sub-lessee of GMHC, will have to move in the next year, but Gulik now foresees no significant problem finding adequate space in its current neighborhood.

“There are no hard feelings,” he said, emphasizing that GHMC offers a range of services tough to find anywhere else.

Weinberg, in walking Gay City News through the new agency home, made that same point over and over. The dining hall, the television room, where movies will be screened following Friday evening dinners, and the Jerry Herman theater desk attend to the clients’ need for nutrition, affordable entertainment, and companionship.

A workplace readiness lab –– stocked with computers provided by SUNY –– responds to the welcome reality of people living longer and healthier with AIDS and the resulting return to the employment world by many. The lab becomes a full-scale high school on evenings, helping clients to complete their GED.

The 33rd Street facility and a prevention and youth outreach satellite due to open on West 29th Street at the end of June will both house branches of MOMS Pharmacy, which specializes in serving HIV-positive populations through treatment adherence counseling as well as oversight of psychotropic drug regimens. Just over one half of GMHC’s HIV-positive clients, Weinberg noted, have also been diagnosed with mental health issues.

A crisis intervention unit, named Team 119, provides immediate care for those who arrive, many for the first time, in a state of distress. Both Weinberg and Hill mentioned a distraught woman who came to the agency the week before, only days after the facility opened, saying she had just moments before received a positive diagnosis. Within minutes, she had a team of professionals and peer counselors working intensively to help her over her emotional hurdle and lay out the first steps toward her care.

With GMHC’s leadership, heading into this Sunday’s annual AIDS Walk, clearly confident that it has surmounted its own hurdles, the question remains how the clients themselves feel.

One leader of the dissident faction, Marcelo Maia, has not reconciled himself to the changes that have taken place. Having resigned from the Client Advisory Board (CAB) at the height of the controversy, he has only been back to the agency a handful of times, and plans to rely on other resources to the extent he is able. Still, in an interview this week, he sounded more disappointed than angry.

“I hope this works out for them,” he said. “I don’t carry a resentment for them. The organization is still vital.”

Joseph Sellman, who fought alongside Maia last spring, remains on the CAB, though he conceded that he has shifted the primary focus of his AIDS activism to the National Action Network in Harlem. Having been to the 33rd Street site only a couple of times in its one-month existence, he said it appeared to be a nice facility, but remained cautious about how things will work out.

“I am thinking there will be more revealed,” he said.

Ed Shaw, a longtime CAB member who assumed its leadership late last year, said the agency’s critics did not reflect the majority of its clients.

“I think I can speak for most clients when I say we are very much elated at the new move,” he said. “The challenges have been put to bed. Everyone I’ve spoken to is very much in favor of what we have at the new facility.”

Shaw said he was particularly impressed by GMHC’s ability to be up and running with all its services so quickly after its move.

Rivera, the board member client who found himself so much at the center of competing factions last year, said he believes the controversies, in the end, proved productive.

“One of the good things that came from the uproar, it brought everyone to the table,” he said.

And then, reflecting the measure by which most clients will probably judge GMHC in the long run, Rivera recalled arriving at the agency 11 years ago with both an HIV and a cancer diagnosis.

“GMHC really saved my life,” he said. “What many of the people there do, you really couldn’t pay for their work.”