BY PHYLLIS ECKHAUS | Once more, luxury development next door has destabilized old and historic housing stock, leaving tenants homeless.
On Nov. 28, due to the effects from construction work on a planned 24-story tower at 644 E. 14th St., the Department of Buildings ordered the roughly 30 tenants at 642 E. 14th St., just west of Avenue C, to vacate their 16-unit walk-up, built in 1900.
One tenant described his plight to The Village Sun as “especially galling” because he and neighbors began calling 311 — and raising the alarm to their landlord, D.O.B. and anyone else who might listen — as soon as they saw cracks appear in their walls in July, when developer Madison Realty Capital began excavation next door.
D.O.B. finally visited his apartment in October, only to suggest the cracks in his wall might be “cosmetic.”
“I am so frustrated,” the tenant said, noting he has yet to receive an explanation regarding the city’s and the landlord’s failure to protect tenants.
He told The Village Sun he would be “couch-surfing” for a month, with “no idea what to expect in 2024.”
This is the second time in less than a year that MRC construction in Lower Manhattan has resulted in emergency vacate orders, displacing longtime tenants, some with rent-stabilized apartments.
In 2021, MRC received approval from the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission to demolish 14-16 Fifth Ave., and replace it with a tall, luxury condominium with fewer units. This past February, construction work resulted in the destabilization of 10 Fifth Ave. and 12 Fifth Ave., and a continuing vacate order for 10 Fifth Ave., with the evacuation of 30 residents in 14 apartments.
The Fifth Avenue block is part of the Greenwich Village Historic District, theoretically under the special protection of L.P.C.
MRC secured the rights to build “14+C,” its contentious, extra-tall, 24-story tower on E. 14th Street, by purchasing air rights from the New York City Housing Authority, with the money to go to repairs of the neighboring Campos II NYCHA site. In addition, MRC agreed that around 50 of about 166 proposed rental units would be “affordable.”
Mayor Adams has famously declared New York City to be open to construction — as he has dubbed it, the “City of Yes.” And many assume that massive residential projects will be a blessing given the city’s severe housing shortage.
But as Marie Ennis, a principal with the engineering firm Old Structures, observed to The Village Sun, the bigger the excavation, the greater the risk to surrounding structures: “Dig a big hole in the ground, and the building [next door] wants to move to that hole in the ground.”
The risks are greatest for historic structures adjacent to construction, she said, noting that lately she is seeing “crazier and crazier excavations next door to little, old buildings.”
Real estate construction attorney Mitchell Troyetsky noted that the New York City Building Code gives next-door homeowners extensive rights, but only when they are savvy enough to protect those rights in advance of construction. For example, he said, being on the adjacent property’s insurance policy is not sufficient to secure coverage: There must be a separate agreement.
Tenants, by contrast, have fewer rights. The Cooper Square Committee is involved in organizing the displaced E. 14th Street tenants.
City obeisance to developers has arguably altered the risk calculus with regard to construction. Andrew Berman, executive director of Village Preservation, told The Village Sun that in his 22 years at the helm of the group, he used to routinely reassure owners of historic homes that they had little to fear from construction next door.
Berman remarked that construction disasters in the Village “were exceedingly rare until three or four years ago, and now they’re a frequent occurrence,” accelerating, as he put it, at a “frightening pace.” He said he can no longer offer reassurance to homeowners who fear next-door construction.
In another recent development, perhaps indicating how much L.P.C. may have shifted from its once-aggressive defense of historic buildings, the commission is entertaining a new proposal for construction next door to the Merchant’s House Museum, the E. Fourth Street institution between Lafayette Street and the Bowery.
The museum, an intact 1832 single-family home, received landmark protections for its exterior in 1965, immediately following the birth of the L.P.C. In 1981, its interior was landmarked, a rare distinction reflecting the complete uniqueness of the building, which boasts original chamber pots, floorboards and ornate plasterwork.
Attorney Michael Hiller, who represents the Merchant’s House, explained to The Village Sun that because the museum building predates poured concrete foundations — and was actually built on rubble — adjacent excavation work puts it at extreme risk of damage or collapse, as does the next-door construction of any new building weighty enough to compress the soil.
And although the developer would be strictly liable for any damage, Hiller observed that nothing could replace the historic or educational value of the existing museum.
“How do you measure the value of 1832 plasterwork?” he asked. “It’s literally priceless.”
For information on homeowners’ rights regarding adjacent construction, the Society for Clinton Hill has posted a useful guide.
An earlier version of this article misquoted attorney Mitchell Troyetsky regarding tenants’ rights. The writer deeply regrets the error.