HABITAT

UPPER WEST SIDE

As nice as it would be for everyone in a cooperative to live in harmony, it's perfectly normal sometimes for people not to see eye to eye. When tense situations escalate into heated arguments, we always recommend mediation over taking conflicts to court. Why? Because lawsuits are expensive and time-consuming. Take the Dakota. Back in 2011, financier Alphonse Fletcher Jr., who has lived in the building since 1992 and served nearly a decade on its board — including two terms as president — filed a lawsuit against the Dakota after the board rejected his request to buy a three-bedroom, $5.7 million apartment adjacent to the one in which he lives. He charged that rejecting the sale was the board's way of retaliating against him for standing up for the rights of other minority and Jewish shareholders and applicants. Fast-forward to 2015, many years and lots of money later, and it looks like bad news for Fletcher. The New York Times reports that "a judge in Manhattan has dismissed a lawsuit brought by the financier against the Dakota, ruling that Mr. Fletcher had failed to provide evidence that the celebrated building's co-op board had discriminated against him because he is black." According to The Times, "Dakota board members said liquidity, not race, led them to reject" Fletcher's bid to buy the apartment. They said "in depositions that they had rejected Mr. Fletcher because he had only $50,000 in liquid assets, millions in debt and mounting losses at his businesses." Justice Eileen A. Rakower of State Supreme Court in Manhattan said "there was not enough evidence of discrimination to warrant a jury trial." And if you think it's finally over, think again. Fletcher plans to appeal the ruling. 

 

Wasn't it just a few days ago that we were talking about a 17-story condo rising in place of a garage between Broadway and West End Avenue — just outside the Upper West Side's historic district? Well, it looks like the UWS has lost another garage, this one located at 221 West 77th Street. According to Curbed, this is developer Naftali Group's second garage-to-condo conversion, and it's been in progress for some time now. "With a design by Danish architect Thomas Juul-Hansen and a selection of 26 two- to five-bedroom condos, it's not slated for occupancy until 2017, [but] its units are officially on the." How much are we talkin'? Prices range from $4 million — what a bargain — to a whopping $23 million clams. What's in it for those who buy? It looks like it's the usual suspects: fitness center, basketball court, on-site parking, and a roof deck. 

Rendering: Naftali Group

 

This week's Ask Real Estate column in The New York Times illustrates perfectly why it's in a board's best interests to keep the lines of communication open with building residents. Arguably, a significant amount of grief can be prevented if building residents are allowed to see why boards operate the way they do and understand the types of everyday building-wide situations they constantly confront. It sounds like things are about to get tense at a co-op on the Upper West Side. One building resident there writes to Ronda Kaysen: "Our co-op board has announced a window replacement project for the entire building because some owners have difficulty operating the windows. The owners of each apartment must provide access to the windows, which means removing and reinstalling all window treatments and, in our case, custom built-in furniture around the windows. This will be costly and inconvenient…. Are we permitted to opt out of the replacement project? Our existing windows are fine." Kaysen explains that windows are a bigger deal than they may seem to this particular building resident. "When buildings want new ones," she writes back, "they invariably want to change them all for reasons of energy efficiency but also to maintain a uniform appearance. A patchwork of different window styles could look odd…. If you were to refuse to let the co-op replace the windows, the co-op could sue you, potentially leaving you on the hook for both the building's legal fees and your own." 

 

The average sales price for Manhattan condos may have slipped slightly in July, but that's not stopping them from rising all over the city. Just outside the Upper West Side's historic district, a 17-story condo building is set to rise. It replaces the garage between Broadway and West End Avenue. YIMBY, which snagged a first look at the development, reports that that 170-foot-tall building will offer 39 apartments spread across 100,194 square feet, which means average units will be approximately 2,569 square feet. As if the promise of space weren't nice enough, potential buyers will want to pay particular attention the floors 12, 13, and 14. Because the structure will be set back after the 11th floor, it will create "large private balconies for residents on the 12th, 13th and 14th floors." Nice, eh? 

Rendering of 269 West 87th Street by FxFowle Architects

Freddie Rivera was concerned. The longtime super at the 73-unit co-op at 771 West End Avenue, he was supervising a major capital improvement job and noticed there was "a water leak in the oil tank room. It was on the top of the brand new oil tank; you could see the marks of the water." He immediately called the building engineer, who was already involved in the larger capital project. "They found that the support beams below the sidewalk had rusted and expanded." The engineer is currently doing probes to determine what action to take.

The rusting support beams have just been one more challenge to overcome for Rivera and the board. "This board is very hands on," observes Ellen Kornfeld, vice president and partner at the Lovett Group, the building's manager. "They like to get involved in projects." Indeed: for the last several months or so, the nine-member board at the prewar, West 97th Street building, has been supervising some expensive jobs, ranging from a $92,283 oil tank replacement to a $561,873 boiler tank conversion.

Life in a co-op is all about community. But sometimes community living can present challenges ranging from personality clashes to more serious matters, such as dealing with a super who's, well, less than super. Take this co-op in the Upper West Side, for example, which is coping with an allegedly belligerent live-in super. "[He] appears to have a drinking problem. He literally passed out, face down on the sidewalk, in front of the building early one morning. He got into a physical altercation with a vagrant in front of the building and had to be hospitalized. He verbally abuses building staff," one of its shareholders writes to Ronda Kaysen in this week's Ask Real Estate column in The New York Times. According to the shareholder, the super doesn't seem to be drinking during business hours. "But shouldn't he be coherent and alert at all times, ready to make an important decision at any time, if needed?" The co-op board doesn't want to make a move "because they think that what he does on his own time is his own business." That's quite a pickle. "A live-in super has a right to a private life," answer Kaysen. "But when he behaves in a worrisome manner in or outside the building, his personal choices become his employer's problem, because management sets the standards for workplace behavior." Furthermore, the super needs to be available in emergency situations, even if they occur in the middle of the night or any time before he starts or after he finishes his shift. The board's "cavalier attitude" is especially alarming, Kaysen points out. "[It] puts the safety of residents and other employees at risk." If the board feels firing the super is too drastic a measure, then it should certainly takes steps to improve the situation. That may mean conducting an evaluation and putting the super on probation to give him a chance to rectify his problematic behavior.

The 54-unit, four-building co-op at 13-19 West 106th Street is also called 13-19 Duke Ellington Boulevard Housing Development Fund Corporation (HDFC). The complex, reports DNAinfo, became an HDFC in 1994 when tenants took it over from a deadbeat landlord. But it looks like there's trouble in paradise. According to the article, the building "has slipped back into disrepair" and now tenants have filed a lawsuit alleging that it's because "board members [have begun] using [the building] as [its] own personal piggy bank." According to tenants Glen Grant and Pascally Toussaint, the board has racked up more than $143,000 in back taxes and nearly $70,000 in water and sewer charges, says DNAinfo citing public finance records. The tenants say that "building doors have been broken for a decade. Smoke detectors have dead batteries. The boiler rarely works. There was a recent rat infestation and bed bug problem, and when Grant sits at his computer desk, mice run over his feet. While the building piles on debt, the president, vice president and secretary/treasure have been collecting monthly salaries of $1,600, $1,000 and $650 respectively since 2006." Board members are reportedly trying to "get a loan, sell a co-op-owned apartment and raise maintenance prices. They recently held elections for the first time in more than eight years, and in a letter this week announced another meeting for shareholders will be held in August." Unfortunately, if the building doesn't sort out its arrears, the city will likely "transfer ownership to an affordable housing developer who would turn it back into rentals. Current shareholders could remain as renters but would lose all their equity." And that's a sad situation for any co-op, HDFC or otherwise, to find itself in. 

As non-owners, renters don't have the same stake in a building as do shareholders or unit-owners. Never mind that assessments and maintenance increases don't affect them. Needless to say, for these and other reasons, renters don't sit on boards. But what happens when they feel like they feel mistreated and want to have a voice and representation? Some renters have lived in their co-op or condo apartments for years but feel like they are treated differently from owners by building staff. That's the case for renters in a building on Manhattan's Upper West Side. One of them tells Ronda Kaysen in this week's Ask Real Estate column in The New York Times that "the superintendent tends to treat [renters] as second-class citizens. Having a voice on the board might help." Stop the press, a renter on a board? "Good luck finding condo or co-op owners willing to vote a non-owner onto the board — assuming they even can," says Kaysen. "The bylaws of most buildings prohibit non-owners from sitting on the board. But even if your building were to permit the practice, owners (who are the only voting members) would have little incentive to elect a rental tenant. From an owner's perspective, a renter would not feel the pain of a special assessment or maintenance increase. So it would not make sense for a rental tenant to vote on such matters." So what recourse, if any, do renters in this type of situation have? Kaysen suggests forming "a tenants' association to demand a change from the condo, as there are rules that guarantee services and protect against harassment. But if tenants want a voice in day-to-day operations, they could suggest that a tenant be offered a seat on a house committee that reports to the board. Such committees frequently offer seats to residents who are not board members. They do not delve into the finances of the building but can influence quality-of-life issues." The more you know! 

 
 

Even if you live in a five- or six-story building rather than in a super-tall luxury high-rise, there are perks you get on the top floor that you don't on the lower floors. For starters, even if your neighbors frequent the roof lots, you don't have to deal with stomping at all hours of the day and night — which is nice. You tend to get better views and lighting, too. This is why maintenance fees and common charges are typically higher for people who live on higher floors. One co-op shareholder in the Upper West Side asks Ronda Kaysen why in this week's Ask Real Estate column in The New York Times: "Does an apartment owner on the 10th floor use more services than someone living directly below her?" When a building is set up as a co-op or a condominium, Kaysen explains, "the developer has to allocate the shares or common interests in a way that is marketable and makes sense, varying the maintenance or common charges throughout the building." She adds that while residents living in units on higher floors might use more services than those on lower floors, it isn't the reason they pay more. Living higher up, says Kaysen, is considered an amenity. Nice views and sunny rooms do come at a premium in the big city. 

Another day, another luxury development in the works causing locals a lot of grief: that's the world of New York City real estate. Late last week, opponents of a controversial Upper West Side project cried foul after the Department of Buildings (DOB) issued the developer last-minute permits to carry on construction, according to DNAinfo. The project in question is a 10-story addition on top of a six-story apartment building located at 711 West End Avenue. Tenants are concerned about dust, noise, and construction traffic, as are parents of children attending the nearby elementary school. They want "more transparency and better safety measures," to be put in place. They are also upset because the DOB granted the permits "just a day before a sweeping landmarking of the avenue that would have derailed the project. Additions to landmarked buildings have to get approval by the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) and are not permitted 'as of right.'" One parent added: "The developers knew the [LPC] vote was coming so they slammed through a bunch of permits to avoid being accountable." In response, a DOB spokesperson said that "the department does not determine when a permit review happens, and that reviews are scheduled by the applicant during times when a DOB examiner is available," adding that "according to the New York City Construction Code, a project's future landmark status cannot be factored in." It looks like the project's opponents aren't giving up. They are calling on Mayor Bill de Blasio to intervene. DNAinfo reported that the mayor's office didn't immediately return a request for comment. Tenants officially submitted a challenge to the developer's plan citing safety concerns, but a DOB examiner had already approved the safety plan. Opponents still have until August 2 to submit other challenges to the project, but that may prove impossible since some of the developer's plans are not available to the public. The group reportedly intends to keep the pressure on the mayor to do something.

Photo by Christopher Bride for Property Shark

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