Upper East Side Headache Sends NYU to Court

     MANHATTAN (CN) — An Upper East Side condominium board is blocking New York University from using the unit gifted to it 18 years ago by an alumnus, NYU claims in court.
     NYU says it accepted the unit at 3 E. 78th St. with the expectation of using it as a study center for the school’s Institute of Fine Arts, named for the donor, Sheldon Solow.
     While the building has 12 residential units, including a penthouse, Solow gifted NYU its only commercial unit, occupying the western portion of the building’s first and basement floors. Formerly home to a plastic-surgery practice, NYU’s unit has the only entrance to the townhouse’s small backyard, according to the complaint, filed on April 12 in Manhattan Supreme Court.
     With the building just one door down from its Institute of Fine Arts, NYU allegedly presented its first renovation plan in 2013.
     This plan would have opened a door in the building’s western exterior wall, an idea the condo board quickly pooh-poohed, according to the complaint.
     NYU says it proposed another plan in 2014, free of exterior penetration, but that the condo board’s “intransigence” has kept the renovations from moving forward.
     While the 2013 plan sought to build a breezeway, NYU says its latest proposal is “more modest,” involving only interior renovations.
     In addition to creating faculty offices, a reading room and a seminar room, NYU also wants to remove facilities and equipment in the yard.
     The complaint insists that the yard exclusively serves the commercial unit, as does the security camera it wants to replace. NYU says its renovation also requires installing a small Siamese pipe connection at the front of the building for fire-safety purposes.
     If there are concerns about the work, NYU says counsel for the condo board “did not explain what the purported inadequacies were, he did not pose any follow-up questions, and he offered no explanation of how the questions purportedly related to the university’s rights … to perform the work or the condominium board’s obligation … to sign the university’s applications.”
     A letter this past November from the condo board’s counsel then “made several irrelevant and erroneous statements,” according to NYU’s complaint.
     NYU says the letter threatened “the university would be engaged in conduct that was not only ‘fraudulent,’ but also ‘criminal,'” if it submitted applications to the New York City Department of Buildings and the Landmarks Preservation Committee.
     In addition to threatening to “report[] NYU for criminal conduct,” the letter also asserted that NYU needed the condo board’s permission to enter condo property, “and that the university would be acting in violation of law if it did enter that property,” the complaint states.
     Built in the late 1890s, the townhouse NYU is trying to renovate is not a landmark but “is located within the Metropolitan Museum Historic District,” according to the complaint.
     The Metropolitan Museum of Art sits just a few blocks up Fifth Avenue from IFA’s principal facility, a designated landmark. NYU calls 1 E. 78th St. the James B. and Nanaline Duke House. It also has a conservation center across the street.
     The Landmark Preservation Committee governs the development of the eight-block Metropolitan Museum Historic District. Its terms require the written approval of all building occupants before any construction in the district can begin.
     NYU says the condo board has “stubbornly refused to cooperate with [its] efforts” to get the permits it needs to break ground on the project, bringing renovation plans to a grinding halt and costing it an arm and a leg in escalating construction costs.
     The university contends that it has thus far been more than fair in showing “deference to the opposition” of its neighbors in the condo, whose units are valued at between $2 million and $3 million on real estate sites Trulia and Homes.com.
     Several unit owners whom NYU met with in December “stated that their objection to the [renovation] work was not to the work itself, but to the proposed use of the commercial unit for academic functions, which, in the opinion of these participants, would diminish the value of the residential units,” the complaint states.
     NYU wants the court to rule that it is entitled to access the condo’s common areas to perform construction. Since the board has deprived NYU of using its unit since March 2015, the school also wants reimbursement of all charges and assessments it paid the building since then.
     NYU wants damages as well, plus “an abatement of any future assessments for the attorneys’ fees and related costs incurred by the condominium board in thwarting the university’s [renovation] efforts.”
     In addition to the Board of Managers of the 3 East 78th Street Condominium, NYU also named board president Marius Fortelni as a defendant. Fortelni did not return a voicemail seeking comment left with his company, Forte Properties.
     NYU is represented in the suit by Jeff Braun of Kramer, Levin, Naftalis & Frankel. Alongside the Catholic Church and Columbia University, NYU is one of the largest landowners in the city. Its development efforts have long brewed tension with neighbors in the campus’s hub of Greenwich Village.

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