Beleaguered brownstone busted again
Tenants and neighbors rally to get a stop work order reissued on West 103rd Street
Construction at 315 West 103rd St. has been mired in controversy since it began in 2009. Last month, tenants and neighbors noticed work being done in violation of a stop work order from the city. Photo: Madeleine Thompson
A stop work order from the city was posted last month at the construction site at 315 West 103rd St., a project mired in controversy since it began in 2009. Photo: Madeleine Thompson
By Madeleine Thompson
The brownstone that stands at 315 West 103rd Street between West End Avenue and Riverside Drive looks normal from the street. The back of the building, however, is open to the elements except for some sparse black cloth. The building’s first permit was issued by the Department of Buildings (DOB) on January 13, 2009 to construct two additional stories and expand by 15 feet, but progress since then has been fraught and infrequent. In December, tenants and neighbors saw excavation and interior work being done in violation of a stop work order that has been in effect, off and on, since July 2009.
After the buildings department’s initial approval in 2009, tenants reviewing the plans noticed that owner Jacob Avid, who could not be reached for comment, had listed the property as vacant. There were, in fact, people living in the building, which has eight apartments, according to real estate website Apartable. The tenants banded together with neighbors, Community Board 7 and their elected officials to put a stop to the construction, and a stop work order was issued seven months later that has remained in effect. Since then, however, work has been done on the site that those familiar with the situation say is in violation of the original stop work order.
Richard Robbins, who lives next door to 315 West 103rd, has had a front-row seat to the project’s problems. “Any chance they’ve had to weatherproof they’ve used as an excuse to do construction,” he said. Because of the exposed nature of the building’s rear, the Department of Buildings has lifted the Stop Work Order occasionally so the owner can protect it from the elements. Robbins says the owner has used the temporary reprieve to do non-permitted construction on other parts of the building.
In 2012, former tenant Mark Danna told the New York Post that he was “living in a dungeon.” “At one point, I bailed out eight gallons of water from my home,” Danna told the paper. “I feel like I no longer have shelter.” According to Robbins, Danna’s apartment was in the back of the building, where it suffered more than others from the building’s exposure. Robbins said Danna accepted a buyout this past fall and has moved out after many years of living there.
Robbins was away in mid-December 2016, when others noticed excavation and interior work being done, but he did see a dumpster and generator parked in front of the building on Dec. 22. Calls from neighbors and tenants alerted the DOB to the activity, and another stop work order was issued. According to the Department of Buildings website, six complaints were logged in 2016 for allegations such as jackhammering, unprotected construction and removing the posted stop work order sign. Seventy one total complaints have been logged since 2009.
Alex Schnell, a Department of Buildings spokesman, added that the most recent stop work order was partially lifted on Dec. 27 to allow for “removal of debris, to clean the site, enclose the rear of the building and make the rear of the building weather-tight.” In response to the owner’s pattern of using weatherproofing to do unrelated work, Schnell said safety and “protecting the property” are the DOB’s top concerns. Though the building’s landlord has been issued multiple violations, the agency must continue giving them leeway to ensure the site is safe.
The mid-2015 expansion of the Riverside-West End Historic District complicated matters further. The brownstone and its neighborhood were included in the designation, which means any new construction on such buildings would have to go through the Landmarks Preservation Commission first. Since 315 West 103rd Street’s plans were underway — albeit paused — at the time, it’s possible that they could be grandfathered into the new historic district and would not need approval. However, according to Schnell, newer plans that propose to reconstruct a stairwell would not be included in the grandfathering and have yet to received a green light from the commission.
Schnell also reassured tenants who might be wary of reporting violations for fear that they would be evacuated: “The only reason DOB would evacuate a building is if it’s immediately hazardous to tenants,” he said. “Nothing to me indicates that there’s been structural instability.”
The property may not be structurally unstable, but as of Dec. 29, its northern face remained open to the January weather. The next step for the building is unclear, but Robbins hopes the community will continue to rally around its tenants. “I think there are enough people who just assumed that if it’s happening then it’s legal that they don’t know any different,” he said. Robbins works from home, and said the experience has been “horrible.”
Madeleine Thompson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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