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Perilous Cracks Cause City to Vacate 157-Year-Old Tribeca Building

Carl Glassman reports for Trib. Widening cracks in the walls of a 157-year-old, three-story building at 17 Leonard St. sparked fears of a collapse earlier this month, causing the Department of Buildings to slap a vacate order on the structure as well as open an investigation with the Landmarks Preservation Commission. The building's perilous conditions also exposed an ongoing dispute between its owner, Christopher Rolf, and Steven Schnall, the developer of a seven-story condominium building with two-story penthouse that is under construction next door. Each one blames the other. Both sides say they expect the city's intervention to finally force a remedy to the building's rapidly deteriorating state. At whose expense is yet to be determined. The decrepit structure, which has a history of violations and stop-work orders dating back to 2008—amounting to fines of nearly $40,000—has long been slated for residential conversion. It is now on the market for $15.7 million. Built as a stable in 1857, 17 Leonard still has "IMD," or interim multiple dwelling status, with the city and requires considerable work before it can qualify for a residential certificate of occupancy. One person was living in the building at the time of the vacate order, issued on Dec. 7. He declined to be interviewed, he said, because he is in a dispute with Rolf over his tenancy. A construction manager on Schnall's project reported that cracks in the building had expanded overnight on Dec. 7, bringing a response from the Fire Department and the DOB and the vacate order that has also closed a portion of the sidewalk. John Peachy, Rolf's architect, showed a Trib reporter wide vertical cracks along the southwest corner of the building, both outside and just inside the front door. He said there is another crack on the second floor that is three-quarters of an inch wide.  "This corner of the building is just falling in both directions, south and west," he said. Peachy said the cracks had about doubled in width since he had last seen them the week before, and he had been trying to convince the Buildings Department to vacate the building and close the sidewalk for more than a week. "It's reached a point where a partial collapse is imminent," he said. Rolf, who is in poor health and bedridden, and Peachy, claim that the damage began with the construction of Schnall's building. "All of those cracks you're looking at in the front have happened in the last month and cracks in the back started to develop in 2012 and have been getting worse and worse", Rolf said in a telephone interview. "But this real movement in the front where [Schnall's] building is located has just happened within the last two months". He said the problems are the result of Schnall's failure to agree to properly underpin his building, which like other buildings in the area, rests on marshy soil. "It's been damage after damage after damage", said Rolf, who converted neighboring 19 and 21 Leonard Street into residential buildings. "I really don't have the money to repair it so I don't have much choice but to sell it". But Schnall claims that Rolf scuttled his efforts to underpin his building, which he said already bore cracked and bowed walls before construction began and are continuing to worsen on their own. Rolf refused to approve plans to underpin his building so that excavation could begin, he said, and that threatened to stall his project. In April, Schnall took Rolf to court in an effort to gain access to his building and begin the work. "We negotiated for several months with Chris", Schnall told the Trib in an email, "and he simply would not agree to sign a license agreement allowing us to do so unless we rebuilt a substantial portion of his west and south walls and did work to his ceiling, skylight and many other areas that had nothing to do with the underpinning license we were requesting". Schnall said engineers were forced to redesign his building's foundation "at a significant cost" in order to avoid underpinning Rolf's structure. Both sides say they have photographs to prove their claims about when the cracks began to appear, but neither would share them with the Trib. A DOB spokeswoman said that a forensic report that will detail the building's deteriorating conditions and their causes is yet to be completed. "An initial inspection showed that construction work at the adjacent lot is a contributing factor", she said in an email. "If it is at any time determined that our construction was the cause of the cracks we will honor whatever obligation is ours, but at this point safety is our main concern", wrote Schnall, whose architectural plans last year had ignited opposition from nearby residents claiming that the project was out of scale with surrounding buildings. A spokeswoman for the Landmarks Preservation Commission said her agency has also opened an investigation. "We will take appropriate action, if warranted, as soon as it's completed", she said in an email.  

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