Not in My Front Yard
Published in The New York Times
June 22, 2007
Controversy on West 15th Street
IN 35 years on the same block — 15th Street between Seventh Avenue and the Avenue of the Americas — Robert Boddington has seen a lot of changes. But one of the most disappointing, he said, came last November, when a neighbor tore down a quaint row house at 123 West 15th Street and began building a taller structure with a bulbous triplex penthouse suspended over the house next door.
Mr. Boddington described the planned penthouse as “an alien pod that landed on the roof.” The new building, he said, “thumbs its nose at the neighboring row of 1853 Italianate row houses” that are among the area’s treasures.
Mr. Boddington and others are hoping the city’s Buildings Department will come around to their view that the seven-story structure violates several provisions of the city’s zoning law. But the Corcoran Group is already marketing the triplex apartment with the rounded top (and a terrace with a metal-mesh canopy) for $6.6 million. The two apartments below it, with concrete floors, undulating wooden ceilings and curvy walls, also have seven-figure price tags.
Colin and Pamela Rath, the developers of the 74-foot-high building, live at No. 121, next door to the construction site. They say they expect to welcome condo owners with a Christmas party in the new building, much of which is being fabricated off site. Having taken out huge mortgages for the project, Mr. Rath, said: “It has to work. Everything we have is riding on it.”
As he spoke, the couple’s daughter Breana, 6, watched “Blue’s Clues” on a large-screen television, while their twin girls, Nerina and Meriel, 22 months, crawled around the sofa, playing with the contents of their father’s wallet.
The building is an example of what can happen in a real estate market where the potential payout is so high that almost no effort to get something built seems too extravagant. The Raths estimate that, after they bought the building for $1.6 million, they spent $1 million — on legal fees and settlements — to remove long-time tenants. All together, they say, they have more than $10 million invested in the project, and yet they stand to make millions more if the apartments sell at or near the asking prices.
The Raths aren’t alone in seeing large opportunities in small plots. Susan Stetzer, the district manager of Community Board No. 3, which includes much of Lower Manhattan, said: “Developers are just going out of control. They are trying to build anywhere and everywhere, whether it makes sense or not, whether it’s contextual or not, whether it has structural integrity or not.”
The community boards, she said, are “overwhelmed by people pointing out problems” with construction projects. Officials like Ms. Stetzer, whose district ends one block from the Rath project, transmit the complaints to the Buildings Department. And though, she said, the department is making a noble effort to resolve the disputes, “this is a burden that should not be put on the community.”
Chris Santulli, the department’s borough commissioner for Manhattan, said the department had added many new inspectors to keep up with the flood of complaints and applications for building permits. But he added that high real estate values were driving developers to propose creative ways of building on small sites, posing novel problems for the department.
“We’re seeing a lot of things we haven’t seen before,” Mr. Santulli said.
Even if the Raths succeed in making millions of dollars, they will have paid another price for transforming their block. “Neighbors will cross the street instead of walking up and talking to us,” Mr. Rath said. The Buildings Department has received more than a dozen complaints about the Raths’ project, some from those neighbors, whose grievances are summarized on the department’s Buildings Information System Web site.
But the Raths are hardly retreating into their apartment at No. 121. They are working with documentary filmmakers to chronicle their efforts to complete the building. The film, they say, will depict a valiant fight against indifferent bureaucrats and misinformed neighbors.
Those neighbors, including Mr. Boddington, have questioned seemingly every aspect of the project, starting with its height, which Mr. Boddington says should be limited to 60 feet under the city’s Sliver Law, meant to control the proliferation of narrow towers on residential blocks. But the department has a practice of allowing penthouses to rise beyond the permitted elevation, its spokeswoman, Kate Lindquist, said.
In testimony before the City Council last December, Ms. Stetzer said, “This perverse interpretation allows buildings that would be denied by the intent of the law.” The neighbors have also questioned the location of geothermal wells, which may or may not be under a city sidewalk. (“We’ve proved to the Department of Transportation that they’re not,” Mr. Rath said.) And they have questioned the appropriateness of many of the buildings’ exterior features, including the lift that will move cars to and from the basement garage.
Mr. Boddington thinks that the lift could be, at best, a nuisance. Mr. Santulli said that the lift would be entirely on private property and that the department had no grounds for denying the Raths’ permit. “We can’t impose restrictions that don’t exist,” Mr. Santulli said.
The lift aside, Mr. Boddington said the Raths aren’t entitled to off-street parking (accompanied by a midblock curb cut) in the first place. In Manhattan below 60th Street, developers are permitted one parking space for every five new residential units they create. The Raths say that they are creating units, but they tore down at least 12 occupied apartments to erect the three condos.
Mr. Rath, 44, sees himself as an innovator who is fighting for such high-tech features as the car lift and the geothermal wells, which, he said, would provide practically free heating and cooling for the building. “The neighbors are very shortsighted,” he said. “What we’re doing is increasing the value of everyone’s property on the block.”
But at least one of those neighbors, William E. Murphy, an architect, said: “It will stick out like a sore thumb. I hate to be so negative, but it’s ghastly.”
Another neighbor, Peter K. Schulze, said he was “devastated” when No. 123 was demolished.
One thing that’s clear is that the Raths have been at least as aggressive as any of their adversaries. After Mr. Boddington, who is the president of the co-op board at No. 115, spoke to a plan examiner at the Buildings Department in 2006, he received a letter from Barry E. Zweigbaum, a lawyer representing the Raths.
The letter accused him of mounting “a vicious and slanderous campaign disparaging Mr. Rath’s property interests.” Mr. Zweigbaum threatened to sue Mr. Boddington for standing in the way of the Raths’ project.
Later, a letter written by Mr. Boddington to the department was given to Mr. Rath, who had filed a Freedom of Information Law request with the department.
In Mr. Boddington’s view, the writers’ names should be removed from such letters. The department’s Web site promises complainants anonymity. And the department’s general counsel, Mona Sehgal, said: “When we receive a FOIL request for a particular location, we disclose the substance of the complaint but withhold the complainant’s name.” (However, the department doesn’t remove the names of people who complain about department decisions, as opposed to the projects themselves, Ms. Sehgal said.)
But Mr. Rath already had an idea as to which neighbors were complaining, and he filed a request listing Mr. Boddington by name. “You have a right to find out who your accuser is,” Mr. Rath said.
Now, Mr. Boddington said, he is faced not just with a building he doesn’t like but with an irate neighbor as well. “This whole thing is a terrible distraction,” he said.
One thing everyone agrees on is that there is no accounting for taste. And in New York City, taste isn’t regulated, except in landmark districts. “We made a point of buying on a block that wasn’t landmarked,” Mr. Rath said, “so there weren’t regulations for what you could do with your building.”
“Or not as many regulations,” corrected Ms. Rath, who came from Ashland, Ky., to New York to study fashion, then worked as a model before opening a Web-based art gallery.
Long before they began the current project, the couple spent five years creating the apartment next door — a place like no other in the city. It contains a two-story-high waterfall that flows into an 18-inch-deep river set into the living room floor.
The river, which is home to 10 large koi, follows the outline of the Yangtze, a feat the Raths accomplished by building a Styrofoam model (following a National Geographic map that they enlarged), setting the model onto the building’s foundation, and then pouring the concrete floor around the model. (The final step was using gasoline to dissolve the Styrofoam, Mr. Rath said.)
Now Plexiglas sheets cover the river, to keep out the Raths’ daughters and cats, Sunrise and Rosie.
The Raths did much of the construction work on their apartment themselves, even carving out the basement using five-gallon buckets. All the while, they lived on a sailboat in the Hudson River or under plastic sheets in the building, where for six months there were no plumbing fixtures, only a hose.
Now that the place is finished, they take every opportunity they get to show it off. During Open House New York, an architectural gathering each fall, as many as 1,500 people have seen the Yangtze, along with such features as a bedroom wallpapered with Mr. Rath’s old comic books and countertops made from a bowling alley.
But the Raths were ready to work on a larger scale, and the new building, which they have named Valhalla, is a chance to show the world what they can do. Luckily, Mr. Rath said, he and his wife have “pretty much the same taste.” (The architect of record on the project is Stanley Gendel of Hoboken.)
Mr. Boddington, in perhaps his most conciliatory moment, said the building “would probably fit in quite well near the West Side Highway, where they’re putting up all kinds of exotic-looking things.” But it is out of place, he said, on a quiet block “with a Greenwich Village feel.”
Brian Babst, a senior associate at Corcoran, who is in charge of marketing the apartments, said the building would appeal to “a creative class of people.”
“In the right person, it evokes a visceral reaction,” he said, “because it’s unlike anything else on the market, anywhere.”
Corcoran has been involved in the project for about a year. The Raths said the company helped them make small modifications to improve marketability — adding a half bath where an owner might expect one, for example — without eliminating the most striking elements of their design.
A sales office at 147 West 15th Street was decorated by the Raths, with curving walls and contemporary furniture, to show off their aesthetic. And their Web site, www.123w15.com, has links to their company, Terrapin Industries, which offers their services as designers.
The couple met in 1993 at the Raccoon Lodge, a pub on the Upper West Side. Mr. Rath, who was born in North Carolina, had just moved from Chicago to Connecticut, where his family runs a direct-mail business. “He lost his shirt as a trader on the Chicago Board of Trade,” Ms. Rath said. “He came back into the family business to pay off all his debt.”
The couple were married in 1996. The same year, they and a partner bought 121 West 15th Street for $900,000. For a time, the partner lived upstairs. But after the Raths completed their downstairs renovation, they bought out the partner and refurbished the two upstairs apartments. In April, they sold those as condos for $2.9 million and $1.5 million.
In 2002, the building next door came on the market. After a year of negotiation, Mr. Rath said, they were able to buy it for $1.6 million. The price would have been higher, he said, except that there were a dozen people living there. Several had been residents for decades. “It took two years to get rid of all the tenants,” Mr. Rath said.
Sophie Rogers-Gessert, 26, moved into the building in July 2005 and worked hard, she said, to make her small apartment a real home. But seven months into her two-year lease, she said, she was shocked to discover that the Raths, whom she knew as both her neighbors and her landlords, had plans to demolish the building. “I was upset for myself, but I was even more upset for the people who had been living there for 20 years or more,” she said.
To win the right to evict the tenants, the Raths said they needed the space for their personal use. Under the current plan, they will extend their apartment from the first two floors of No. 121 into the first two floors of No. 123, giving them room for such features as an au-pair suite. And they will combine the two backyards, giving their girls a place to run around, Mr. Rath said.
Eventually, he and his wife began negotiating with the tenants. At the same time, Mr. Rath said, “we did demolition as apartments became vacant.”
Ms. Rogers-Gessert said that she had to face reality when the building started coming down around her, and construction dust began accumulating inside her apartment.
“I began to worry about my health,” she said. She went to see a lawyer, hoping there was some way to preserve the building and was advised to withhold the rent. The Raths sued to evict her. Eventually, she accepted a settlement from the Raths but would not disclose the amount on the advice of her lawyer.
The Raths said that tenants received payments of $10,000 to $240,000. “They’re all living in the area very well, or they have a nice nest egg,” Mr. Rath said.
One of the tenants he evicted, Mr. Rath added, “is still a friend who comes over on the children’s birthdays.”
By the time the last tenant left, the Raths had already filed plans for their new building with the city. The plans were initially approved in 2005, but in 2006 the department audited the plans, in response to one or more complaints.
As a result of the audit, the department asked for several relatively minor changes to the building. Mr. Rath said he believes patience helped him get most of what he wanted. “There’s a lot of bureaucracy, but once you’ve learned the game, it’s just persistence,” he said. And he gives a lot of credit to his expediter, Andy Pisani, for knowing how to navigate the system.
There are indications that, at least until recently, the system wasn’t as good as the navigators. In December, Ms. Stetzer testified before City Council that the Buildings Department had become so unresponsive to complaints that it was “an obstacle to the Community Board and the community.”
But in a recent interview, she said the department had made huge improvements, bringing in new staff members to deal with the onslaught of permit applications.
Ms. Lindquist, the department spokeswoman, said last week that the Raths’ file would be audited again because of the number of complaints about the project, a process that could take anywhere from a week to a month.
That could mean more delays, delays the Raths say they can’t afford. While helping to get her oldest daughter ready for a trip to the ballet, Ms. Rath said: “This is our property. Aren’t we allowed to do what we want to with our property?”