HABITAT

COND-OP HORROR

Cond-op Horror

A bullying sponsor, a noisy restaurant operating outside the law, an error by a city inspector, and an untamable beast called a "cond-op" combine to make a board back down and a president resign. A cautionary tale.

Jane Denny (at right), a 46-year-old, self-employed graphic artist, was president of the co-op board at the Hampshire Apartments in Forest Hills, Queens. A six-story brick building with 67 apartments and 11 commercial enterprises, the edifice is actually a "cond-op" — generally speaking, a condominium divided into one or more commercial units plus a single residential "unit" that is actually a co-op with shareholders. As a result, the shareholder owns shares in a co-op that owns the residential unit of a condominium. The sponsor, Aaron Sirulnick, also owns 17 apartments in the building and holds one seat on the co-op's seven-member board.

Denny moved into a second-story apartment above a diner in 1995. She joined the co-op board in 2003, just before the co-op won a lawsuit that wrested majority control from the sponsor. Yet a central problem remained, says Denny: "We have no control over those commercial properties, and we don't have the option to change the [condo's] bylaws.”

The severity of the cond-op problem didn't become apparent until April 2005, when the diner beneath Denny's apartment closed and workers began renovating the space for a Japanese restaurant called Chikurin.

"They were a nuisance tenant from the minute they took possession," says Denny. "They were in there at 6 a.m. every day doing construction. No holidays, no weekends, no noise code.”

After eight months of renovation, the restaurant finally opened on December 11, 2005, a day Denny will not forget. "I was sitting on my couch watching TV," she recalls. "There was a screech and a bang, then the whole building started to shake.”

The culprit was the restaurant's new heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) system, which was anchored to the floor joists in Denny's apartment, according to an engineer's report commissioned by the board. Denny claims her apartment shook 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and that she began suffering from migraine headaches, insomnia and anxiety.

She deluged the Department of Buildings (DOB) with complaints, but those were "either unsubstantiated upon inspection, or the inspector could not gain access to inspect the unit," according to DOB spokesperson Carly Sullivan.

The co-op board filed a lawsuit against the sponsor. Sirulnick countersued, charging Denny had coerced the board into wasting co-op funds on the suit. (Both Denny and Sirulnick recused themselves from board votes on the matter. Sirulnick declined a request to be interviewed for this article, and the other five board members either declined interview requests or failed to return a reporter's phone calls. The management of Chikurin did not return phone calls.)

Frustrated, Denny contacted television's New York 1 for You reporter Susan Jhun, who came to the apartment on May 14, 2007, with a camera crew to document Denny's complaint. The crew taped footage of bowls of water vibrating violently. Jhun said on-camera: "You can see from the constant ripples in bowls of water how strongly and steadily her apartment shakes." Yet one week after New York 1's visit, before the segment aired, the board held an emergency meeting and voted to drop the lawsuit.

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