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

Firefighters on the scene after a call to 911 about cracks in 17 Leonard Street, at right, that had widened overnight. The building's owner blames construction of 15 Leonard Street, at left, whose developer counters that the fault lies with the owner of 17 Leonard. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Dec. 15, 2013

Widening cracks in the walls of a 157-year-old three-story building at 17 Leonard St. sparked fears of a collapse last month, causing the Depart­ment of Buildings to slap a vacate order on the structure and open an investigation with the Landmarks Preser­vation Com­mis­sion.

The building’s perilous condition also exposed an ongoing dispute be­tween its owner, Christopher Rolf, and Steven Schnall, the developer of a seven-story condomin­ium build­ing with a 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 had 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 entrance. 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 that the cracks had about doubled in width since he had last seen them the week before and that 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 harbored cracked and bowed walls before construction began that are continuing to worsen on their own. Rolf refused to approve plans to underpin his building so that excavation could begin, Schnall said, which in turn 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 detailing 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.

A spokeswoman for the Landmarks Preservation Commission said of her agency’s investigation, “We will take ap­propriate action, if warranted, as soon as it’s completed.”

“If it is at any time determined that our construction was the cause of the cracks,” Schnall wrote, “we will honor whatever obligation is ours, but at this point safety is our main concern.”