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World War Z: Zeckendorf Towers' New Smoke-Free Policy Wins Big

Frank Lovece in Board Operations on May 24, 2013

Zeckendorf Towers, Union Square, Manhattan

Zeckendorf Towers, Union Square, Manhattan
May 24, 2013

While several new-constriction condominiums in the City have been smoke-free from the start, Zeckendorf Towers, at the Union Square site of the defunct S. Klein chain's flagship department store, is one of only a handful of co-ops and condos that have voted to go smokeless. Others within the last two years have included a 65-unit condo in Manhattan's Yorkville neighborhood and a 72-unit condo in Astoria, Queens.

Three-Year Process

The Zeckendorf condo board began investigating going smoke-free in 2010 in reaction to residents' complaints about cigarette smoke. Needing to amend the building's bylaws through a referendum in order to ban smoking in apartments, the board allied with the New York City Department of Health and Manhattan Smoke-Free Partnership, which together with the NYC Coalition for a Smoke-Free City helps provide support for buildings seeking to adopt smoke-free policies. 

"I am thrilled that such a large majority of my neighbors voted to make our building a healthier, safer, and more pleasant place to live,” Zeckendorf resident Andrea York said in a statement. "It feels great to know that I can sit in my living room and sleep in my bedroom with clean air again. Just like smokers have the right to smoke, non-smokers have the right to not inhale their smoke. Smokers can still be free to smoke but now they have to be a bit more concerned about where they do it. It feels great to sit in my living room and sleep in my bedroom with clean air again."

New York State considers secondhand smoke a health hazard and a potential liability for, at the very least, landlords, co-op boards, and condo unit-owners renting out their apartments. This came as a result of the landmark case Poyck v. Bryant (2006), in which the court ruled that "in the context of implied habitability, secondhand smoke is just as insidious and invasive as the more common conditions such as noxious odors, smoke odors, chemical fumes, excessive noise and water leaks and extreme dust penetration."

Neither party in that case, involving a unit-owner and his tenant, had asserted claims against the condo board since the warranty of habitability doesn't apply between condo boards and an individual unit-owner, but only in lease situations (including co-op proprietary leases.)

Getting Burned

The most highly visible early attempt at creating a smoke-free co-op came in 2002 at 180 West End Avenue, part of the Lincoln Towers complex. "A great many people were complaining about secondhand smoke, and someone died as a result of a fire started by a person [who fell asleep] smoking on a couch," the board's attorney Stuart Saft. recalled at the time. It became an internationally misreported story that erroneously claimed the co-op had instituted an immediate total ban on smoking when the policy actually applied only to new, future residents. Nonetheless, the negative attention caused the co-op to retreat.

In the decade since, attitudes have changed: A recent Quinnipiac Poll shows that 59% percent of New Yorkers would prefer to live in a smoke-free building.

The overwhelming passage of a such a policy at Zeckendorf Towers, one of the city's largest and best-known luxury condominiums, may represent a signal moment in an evolving social change. Condo and co-op boards contemplating a similar policy may see this as model on which to base their own efforts. 


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