Village patrons have visited Joe Coffee since its location at 9 E. 13th St. opened seven years ago. The chain’s owner, Jon Rubinstein, spends most workdays at his desk, located on the coffee shop’s mezzanine. In the past two years, as The New School began construction of its 16-story, $353 million University Center at 65 Fifth Ave. — just two addresses away from the coffeeshop — Rubinstein said he has seen his shop’s walls crack, its entrance warp, and its building sink at least four inches. What’s more, many of his once-frequent customers have stopped coming by.
9 E. 13th St. is one of at least four addresses near the University Center that has allegedly sustained structural damage over the last two years. Other structures on the block affected by the massive project include 5 E. 13th St., 10 E. 14th St. and 12 E. 14th St.. Rubinstein has tried fixing his shop’s damages, which he estimated exceeds $20,000. But whenever repairmen paint over the wall cracks or tighten the door hinges, he said, new hints of deterioration appear. He has complained to the university, leaving messages on various department answering machines. Nobody has replied to him, he said.
“The New School has refused to take any responsibility thus far, nor will they communicate with us directly,” said Rubinstein.
Rubinstein said he has no plans of suing The New School, nor other parties responsible for the University Center’s construction. But other residents and merchants in the surrounding area have filed suit. Michael and Glorimar O’Hara, residents of 5 E. 13th St., are currently suing the university and its building development team — Langan Engineering; architecture firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill; and construction firms Durst and Tishman — for $17 million. And shoe retailer David Z., along with business partner Avido Ltd., are taking similar action for an undisclosed sum of money.
Attempts to contact numerous New School personnel – including Vice President for Design, Construction and Facilities Management Lia Gartner; Vice President for Legal Affairs Roy Moskowitz; Senior Vice President for Finance and Business Frank Barletta; and neighbor liaison Jane Crotty – were directed to university spokesman Sam Biederman, who declined to comment “due to pending litigation.” He said that The New School has reached out to its neighbors, from the project’s inception to its construction, and has adhered to local input.
“Since planning this building, the university has worked in concert with the community,” said Biederman. “In terms of being a good neighbor, our focus is on Greenwich Village and Union Square. It is our home, too.”
On February 4, 2011, the New York City Department of Buildings issued a violation against The New School for “fail[ing] to take adequate measures to prevent the vertical or lateral displacement” at an adjoining building at 10 E. 14th St. The violation, which the buildings department said has yet to be resolved as of October 20, states that the building has endured cracks half-an-inch wide on its basement and ground levels.
Biederman declined to comment on the violation. None of the other parties responsible for the University Center responded to the Free Press’ telephone inquiries.
In the O’Hara family’s $17 million lawsuit against The New School and its 65 Fifth Ave. associates, the family claims that walls have separated from the floors, the metal frames around their building’s emergency exit doors have jammed and soil has eroded from below their building. The O’Haras – represented by attorneys Michael Rogers and Douglas Lutz from law firm Wasserman, Grubin and Rogers – allege that the ongoing construction is responsible for these damages.
David Z. opened its 12 E. 14th St. location in September 2011, on the building’s ground level and cellar. Plaintiff attorney Jack L. Lester filed a complaint on May 3, noting that since his clients opened shop near the University Center site, the space’s walls have cracked and its flooring has separated from the subflooring. A settlement has not yet been reached. David Z. management did not respond to Free Press inquiries, while Lester declined to comment.
Legal representatives for The New School, Langan, Durst, Tishman and Skidmore, Owings and Merrill all declined comment on either of the suits. Biederman would not comment on damage-related claims from either case, nor would he remark on accusations of The New School’s negligence.
The February 4 buildings violation described 10 E. 14th St. as one of the structures most affected by the University Center construction. Peter and Linda Salzer purchased a $1.48 million ground-level suite at that address in July 2010. In March, less than two years later, the Salzers sold the property to The New School for over $1.54 million, according to a deed from the New York City Department of Finance. The family declined to share their reason for the sale, nor did they comment on whether the apartment had sustained any of the damages described.
Biederman said that The New School hopes to sell the apartment property for additional revenue once the University Center is completed in Fall 2013. He projected that the block’s property values will have increased by that point.
“The real estate market is a market, and it will get better,” added Biederman. “This is a safe investment.”
Biederman would not discuss why the university would invest in a potentially damaged property, only noting that the Salzers already wanted to sell their apartment and needed no convincing to follow through with the sale.
Robert Kittine, a real estate broker at The Corcoran Group, which markets properties in Manhattan and Brooklyn, said that the amount The New School paid the Salzers is consistent with property values in the area.
“Once this elaborate complex is finished [at 65 Fifth Ave.], values will move up higher,” Kittine said. “It could bring more funds to the university.”
Andrew Berman, executive director for the Greenwich Village Society of Historic Preservation, said that The New School has a good overall rapport with its Village community. Berman also said, however, that the university’s ambitions to expand its presence in the area “creates a potential for some conflict.” But if the school listens to the concerns of locals, he added, they “could retain the largely harmonious relationship it has had with the surrounding community for many decades.”
Kaya Oner, a 16-year-old high school junior at NYC Lab School, said she hopes that The New School maintains a strong connection with her neighborhood as well. But above all, she just wants her building well-maintained. Oner lives at 9 E. 13th St. with her mother, Daniella van Gennep. In June, Oner spent nearly an hour stuck inside her building’s elevator after its pulley got stuck.
“It happened twice that week,” Oner said. “The people who finally got us out from the top floor said that screwy building maintenance was to blame. I think they were right.”
Oner said the building is still in need of repair today. Many of its doors do not close fully; in some cases, residents can only open their apartment entrance about 18 inches until it scrapes the floor and stops moving.
“Plenty of work still needs to be done here,” added Oner. “Re-painting cracks and covering up the damages can only help for so long.”