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With Friends Like These

With Friends Like These

When I bought a one-bedroom co-op in Chelsea in 1994, I could feel the doors of affordability close right behind me. Just a year later, my apartment would have sold for twice as much, which would’ve been way out of my modest price range. Today, it’s worth seven or even eight times what I paid. Like a lot of folks who rode the Chelsea real estate wave, I feel like I won the lottery.

But there’s a serious downside to all this “wealth” creation, and that is when your longtime neighbor cashes out for retirement in Florida or Panama, and the new buyers – who are genuinely wealthy – begin to move in.

Our building went up in 1858 as a four-story, single-family residence. Over the years, it had a number of incarnations as a rental building. Then, in 1978, it was reconfigured into a co-op, mostly small one-bedrooms, with exposed brick and high ceilings. The sponsors did not, however, fix the palpable slope of the ancient floors, which became more noticeable as you went up. Perhaps not desirable, but not unmanageable. A charming quirk.

Or not. Which is what the new owners of a unit on the third floor – two doctors – thought when they bought it a few years back. Their renovation plan was total: all the latest, small-space bath and kitchen appliances, new super-duper heating and cooling system (no boiler here), and a new, level, floor. It was going to be rough, but over in three months. The board at the time approved the plan.

Soon after, a daily nightmare of contractors, bringing noise and filth as they tramped up and down our narrow stairs, 8 A.M. to 5 P.M. It seemed impossible that there could be so many loud, pounding activities taking place all at once, in a relatively small space. On and on it went.

At four months, gentle inquiries began as to progress and how much longer the renovation would continue. The doctors, after all, must be anxious to move in. This extended process, with so many workmen, plumbers, electricians, and floor-builders, must be costing a fortune, etc.

Rumors were coming from the workers that things were taking longer because the owners kept changing their minds. They didn’t like some things that had to be completely redesigned and rebuilt. The complicated European water heater was incorrectly hooked up and nobody could figure out the problem. Those of us who lived in the building endured, but we began to resent this long, noisy process.

Worst was the several months it took them to rebuild the floor. Every day, the high-pitched whine of a table saw, then hammer, hammer, hammer, then saw screech, and repeat. Hour after hour, day after day.

At six months, increasingly anxious queries about when we could expect the renovation to be finished resulted in a long letter from the new owners, gushing sincere regret and apologies, and asking for sympathy as the victims of bad estimates and incompetent contractors. And absolutely guaranteeing the work would be done within one month. No matter what.

The board at the time had little choice but to allow the renovation to continue. “How could we force them to stop when their floor was all ripped up?” And, too, we’re a small building of busy people. As one board member put it, “I don’t want to be the cop in co-op.” Nobody was happy, and there wasn’t a solution.

After 10 months, when the doctors finally moved in, the well had long since been poisoned. Civility was maintained, but nobody was rushing to make friends. Then, a final straw, when they defied our no-pets rule with a big bulldog. Any remaining shred of trust was gone. It’s as if – having spent so much money on their apartment – they felt they deserved to do as they wished. Fortunately, you don’t have to like your neighbors in this city.

Apparently, the doctors weren’t very happy either, because after less than two years, they put their “showplace one-bedroom in the heart of charming Chelsea” on the market and moved away. I think they even made some money on the transaction.

The new owner is a famous television actor, who is rarely here, and is friendly and quiet when he is. A happy ending, and a lesson: the rich are not like you and me, except sometimes.

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