By Megan Finnegan
Tenants of the landmarked building at 101 West 85th Street, known in its heyday as The Brockholst Apartments, are hoping that their home doesn’t collapse before their eyes. In dealing with what several tenants claim is an irresponsible and unresponsive landlord, residents are worried that their latest problem, illegal construction in the basement, could cause structural problems for the 122-year-old building.
On July 16, the Department of Buildings inspected the property and immediately issued a full stop work order for construction being done in the basement. According to the DOB, the building’s landlord, listed as 85th Columbus Corporation, had never filed for a work permit to transform the basement of the building into what will supposedly be a commercial space suitable for medical leasing. A sign on the building advertises the space for rent. Ari Paul, who identified himself on the phone as the property manager for 101 West 85th Street and is listed as the contact person on city reports, refused to comment for this story and hung up on a reporter who called with questions.
The building at 101 West 85th Street. Photos by Andrew Schwartz.
Marta White, the secretary of the building’s tenant committee, who lives on the first floor with her daughter, grandson and five cats, has been cataloguing grievances that stretch back several years. She claims the city has failed to properly punish the landlord for a history of cutting corners and avoiding the scrutiny of various public agencies. She has gone to Community Board 7, to City Council Member Gale Brewer and to as many city agencies who will take her calls to register complaints about unsafe construction and shady inspection processes that she says are de rigueur for the property.
“What’s the point of having a buildings department?” asked White. “They got a stop work order for the basement because it was full of pretty big trenches. They got a stop work order that said that tenants could not get to the rear egress, so they had to fix the floors.”
That stop work order, issued in March, was rescinded in April when the landlord cured the violations, providing two means of egress from the basement. But with the most recent stop work order, White said, the same problems are back again.
Ernie Smith, who owns an embroidery company that caters to Broadway productions, has lived in the building for 43 years and testified to the landlord’s lax adherence to city regulations.
“What we’re trying to get addressed is for the landlord to play by the rules, follow the city regulations and do things properly so that he doesn’t jeopardize our existence here in the building,” said Smith. He said he’s afraid that the landlord hires subpar workers and skirts permitting processes in ways that could severely damage the structure of the old building.
“Over the years, as tenants have moved out, the landlord has made renovations to apartments to rent them at a higher rate,” Smith said, but often fails to file for any permits to do so.
“For example, he put a penthouse on the roof and didn’t file the paperwork when we discovered six years later that he was supposed to replace the roof,” Smith said.
The building currently has an open Environmental Control Board violation for constructing two penthouse apartments without permits; the $800 fine was paid (with $50 extra thrown in) but the violation is still listed as open, with no compliance recorded.
He also noted that two apartments on the sixth floor were split into four tiny apartments without any permits whatsoever, a claim backed up by DOB inspectors as noted on the most recent stop work order for the basement.
Smith and White say there are many examples of dangerous conditions in the building. According to the DOB, the building has 144 complaints listed, 44 DOB violations (4 of them open) and 39 ECB violations (3 open). In December of last year, for example, a report from the city’s Department of Health identified unsafe work practices on a floor that had been found to contain lead paint. The description notes that a complete renovation was being done in one apartment, without permits, and was contaminating public spaces with lead dust.
City Council Member Gale Brewer said that the tenants’ complaints are justified, and she has been working with them to get some of the issues remedied, but is at a loss herself as to how this type of illegal construction could go on.
“I don’t understand how the city can allow this kind of enterprise,” said Brewer. “I sent it to the Department of Investigations because I didn’t know what to do.” She is waiting for a response from the DOI and said she hopes more facts will come to light when the landlord must appear at an Environmental Control Board hearing on Sept. 8 as a result of the latest stop work order.
Everton Harris, a spokesperson for the DOB, confirmed that the stop work order had been issued because of hazardous or illegal construction, but said that DOB has to take each violation on a case-by-case basis and is limited in how they can address cumulative problems, other than by increasing fines for repeat offenses.
“The tenants can complain about work being done,” Harris said. “We’re not a law enforcement agency, we just issue the violations.”
One of the most immediate concerns is one that is difficult for any single city agency to address—that of the fire escape routes.
Blocked exit from the basement to the front of the building.
“The backyard of our building is a holding area in the event of a fire,” said Smith. “There’s supposed to be a way to get out of the holding area. They put a push bar in front of a fence” that leads to the backyard of a neighboring brownstone, but doesn’t provide access to the street.
“If there were a fire, it would be a reenactment of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. Our building would go up in smoke because there’s a lot of wood in it,” Smith said.
“The main concern that we have is fire and egress,” said Brewer, pointing out that there is no way to escape the basement with the current illegal construction, which has now been blocked by locked wooden doors with “no trespassing” signs affixed to them.
“The reason for the no trespassing sign is the very suspect legality of what they’re doing in the basement,” said White.
The tenants hope the landlord will be slapped with bigger fines at the upcoming hearing, but they don’t know what might remedy the problems they’ve already had and prevent the landlord from doing illegal work in the future.
“Restaurant inspectors come in and fine restaurant owners thousands of dollars for having an egg on the counter,” Smith said. “Inspectors come to our building and they see all these flagrant violations and do nothing.”