Over their heads News

| 04 Aug 2015 | 11:58

If you think construction noise on your block is a nuisance, the residents of 711 West End Ave. are convinced they have you beat.

The owners of the rent-stabilized, six-story building have embarked on an unprecedented effort to build a 10-story condo addition on top of the existing structure, alarming tenants who now fear the effects of a new building effectively being built over their heads.

“I’ve never seen anything like this done in an occupied building,” said Richard Herschlag, an engineer hired by residents to review the plan. “I don’t know of one example of something of this size being done with a fully occupied building.”

Stephanie Cooper, a lawyer and co-founder of the tenants association at 711 West End Avenue, said residents have mounted an appeal over the DOB’s approval of the plan based on an inadequate tenant protection plan filed by the building’s owners, the Kalikow Group.

The project involves driving 18 columns around the existing building, which will be used to support the 10-story structure, the installation of an elevator shaft through the existing building, and enlarging the existing garage by lowering its floor 10 feet. The plan also calls for the creation of an entrance on 95th Street for the new condos.

Herschlag said the current plan fails to address myriad safety issues that residents in the existing building will be faced with should construction move forward. For instance, he said, the elevator shaft that Kalikow wants to build through the existing structure would block fire exits and the work would inevitably spill out into the hallways of the existing building.

Another example, he said, is that the columns used to support the condo addition are set to be driven through the foundation of the existing building and the underlying bedrock, and no mitigation efforts for tenants are explained in the tenant protection plan.

“There’s going to be such an amazing amount of vibration and potential damage to the building,” said Herschlag. “It’s going to be totally unlivable for anyone living there. The tenant protection plan just doesn’t cover any of that. It’s married to some other reality.”

The Kalikow Group counters that the plan adequately covers safety and quality of life issues for tenants of 711 West End Avenue.

“The tenant protection plan was carefully engineered by highly qualified construction engineers and submitted, reviewed and approved according to the DOB’s rules and regulations,” said Kalikow through a spokesperson. “The safety and well-being of our residents is our utmost priority. Appropriate protections are being put in place for residents.”

Herschlag was asked to review a similar proposal in 2007 to expand a residential building on West 92nd Street, but even that proposal paled in comparison to what Kalikow wants to do on West End Avenue. The project on West 92nd Street was defeated over concerns about the tenant protection plan and how the addition would affect the existing structure, said Herschlag.

Cooper said the existing building is entirely rent stabilized and has 144 units, around 20 of which are unoccupied. Kalikow’s addition will come in at 65 units and 124,602 square-feet, according to DOB filings. The Kalikow spokesperson the hope is that construction will begin “before the end of 2015.”

“Some people are hysterical, other people are just anxious,” said Cooper of the atmosphere in the building. “I get 50 emails a day from tenants.”

The timing of the permit approvals also has drawn scrutiny. DNAinfo.com reported in June that the DOB issued four construction permits to Kalikow just one day before a broad landmarking initiative on West End Avenue was approved by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which would have prevented Kalikow’s project from being approved.

“I think the developer was very savvy about the timing,” said Councilmember Helen Rosenthal. “And I was very disappointed the permits were issued…and the site safety plan and the tenant protection plan, I think they can be better done and could go further.”

When asked about the permit timing, a spokesperson for Kalikow said, “There has been a lot of chatter involving only alleged details, none of which are really supported by fact.”

Even so, residents have hired attorney Sam Himmelstein of the firm Himmelstein McConnell and Gribben to advise them on their options and, should construction proceed, insure that tenants are indeed protected during construction.

“This project just screams hazard to me,” said Himmelstein.

He said contractors will likely request access to apartments, and workers will be hoisting tons of material and equipment over a congested and dangerous intersection at West End Avenue and 95th Street, in close proximity to windows that are used by tenants. The project is also near to P.S. 75 Emily Dickinson. Parents at the school have previously protested the DOB’s approval of Kalikow’s project.

Kalikow, in a statement, maintained that they’re focused on the safety of existing residents, and that all of their permits are in order, as well as their safety and tenant protection plans. They also claim the construction will work out better for the existing tenants in the end.

“We have been part of the Upper West Side for over 30 years and have roots on West End Avenue going back to the turn of the century,” said Kalikow. “As part of the fully permitted project, we are committed to improving the existing residents’ apartments by providing upgrades to their living environment that will result in a positive transformation for everyone who calls the property home.”

Cooper and the tenants association are looking for answers from the DOB about the timing of the permit approval, “given the strange coincidence, as well as the granting of landmark protection to our building one day after the permits were filed. I don’t believe in one coincidence, and when there are two, it’s very curious to us.”

Cooper said if the DOB doesn’t revoke Kalikow’s permit, tenants would take their appeal to the city’s Board of Standards and Appeals.

“If there’s a way for use to legally prevent this from happening, that would be our first goal,” said Himmelstein. If the project goes ahead as planned, he said his focus would be on insuring the safety and quality of life of residents.

Himmelstein agreed with Herschlag that this type of project isn’t very common.

“One of the reasons it’s so rare is that you have to have the right combination of factors,” said Himmelstein, such as an opportunity to add onto a building that has the air rights to go taller and won’t be violating any zoning restrictions.

Herschlag said it seems as if Kalikow and the DOB are testing out a new development technique on residents of 711 West End Avenue.

“I think [Kalikow] and DOB seem to be using these tenants as guinea pigs for an untested type of project,” he said.

Rosenthal said her office is continuing to monitor the status of the project, and that DOB Manhattan Borough Commissioner Martin Rebholz has referred it to the department’s high rise task force because the “mechanism for this project is unusual.”

“I’m not going anywhere, and I’m continuing to work closely with the DOB, and to the extent that the department can have extra eyes on this project, I think they are,” said Rosenthal. “We’ll be watching them through the entire construction.”