Luxury Living is Taking a Toll, Brother!

phil on fireLast month, I received an email from a resident who lives at Northside Piers (the first residential development to be built following the 2005 rezoning of the Greenpoint/Williamsburg waterfront) because he was having major problems with his unit, located at 164 Kent Avenue. The development group formed by LM Equity Participants, RD Management, and Toll Brothers would develop the market-rate towers, and receive $300 million in acquisition and construction financing from Citibank Community Development.

Great fanfare accompanied the groundbreaking of Northside Piers/Palmers Dock on July 13, 2006, with the attendance of some of the city’s top brass, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former Deputy Mayor for Economic Development & Rebuilding, Daniel L. Doctoroff, State Assemblyman Vito Lopez, former Department of Housing Preservation & Development Commissioner Shaun Donovan, Department of City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden, Department of Parks & Recreation Commissioner Adrian Benepe, and Toll Brothers Vice President David Von Spreckelsen. Von Spreckelsen was quoted as saying at the event, “We are thrilled with the opportunity to participate in the revitalization of the northern Brooklyn waterfront made possible by the hard work of the Bloomberg administration in accomplishing this important re-zoning.”

The website for Northside Piers states: ”Beautifully designed, thoughtfully executed with no detail overlooked, your new condo in Williamsburg is everything you’ve ever wanted. Kitchens designed by Stephen Alton, with rich, wide-plank American walnut floors.”

When I asked what was going on in the towers, I was invited to meet many property owners in Northside Piers, all of whom were having, and continue to have ongoing problems with the build-quality of their units. I was also told of problems with units that were not disclosed to buyers until after they moved in. But before I lay out some of these issues, let’s go back to May 2007, when the first tower was being built.

In a recent March 18th New York Times article, Von Spreckelsen incorrectly states that his company built the first of two towers at its Northside Piers project in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, with union contractors. In fact, as construction costs escalated in 2008, Toll Brothers turned to a non-union contractor for the second tower, prompting unions to protest with five giant inflatable rats. The truth is union workers were protesting the use of non-union workers at the first tower, starting May 17, 2007. Mayor Bloomberg had promised the unions work at waterfront sites in return for support of the Williamsburg/Greenpoint rezoning in 2005. I had many conversations with workers on the site, at the time, who stated that non-union workers were being brought in, and that corners were being cut in the construction of the building.

So, it came as no surprise to me to learn that major problems exist at Northside Piers. I have agreed not to name any of the residents who spoke to me, because many residents are fearful of retribution from the condominium’s Board of Managers, and/or Toll Brothers. One can safely say that all new buildings are going to have some problems; at the same time, it’s vital that any issues be resolved under the warranty the new owners receive from Toll Brothers. But it seems in interviews with many residents that Toll Brothers have gone out of their way to drag their feet in resolving issues.

Some units have had water infiltration which has resulted in mold growth. In addition, many owners complained that the full-view windows do little to keep wind and water out of their units, which increases use of heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer, both of which run on electricity. This certainly makes our friends at Con Edison very happy, as I was shown the electricity bills for many residents averaging over $400 dollars a month.

One resident who is dealing with water infiltration and mold issues, and who has health problems, alleges that Toll Brothers hid the issue of mold and mildew, and that it has adversely affected his health, worsening a pre-existing condition. The owner showed me a letter from his doctor stating that he should move out of his unit “because of pulmonary problems from mold and mildew that were worsening existing conditions.” A report from independent testing company Mold Pro stated that, “Visible mold growth on engineered flooring by south sliding door noted. Visible mold growth inside wall cavity, west side below glass with visible standing water on concrete slab adjacent to west wall.” The owner was told to “Conduct a Level IV: Extensive Contamination remediation (greater than 100 contiguous square feet in an area) as outlined by the New York City Dept. of Health including but not limited to:

A.  Remove and discard drywall at the site of water intrusion and continue four feet past the last sign of mold growth and or water damage,
B.  Remove and discard all associated insulating material,
C.  Professionally dry clean all stored fabrics,
D.  Remove and discard all stored paper items or other items that cannot be properly cleaned,
E.  HEPA vacuum all surfaces,
F.  Scrub all surfaces with an EPA approved fungicide,
G.  Coat all exposed wall cavity surfaces with an encapsulate paint,
H.  Containment.

1.  Complete isolation of work area from occupied spaces using plastic sheeting sealed with duct tape (including ventilation ducts/grills, fixtures, and any other openings),
2.  The use of an exhaust fan with a HEPA filter to generate negative pressurization.

When I visited this unit, I smelled mold right away and within 10 minutes I was having problems with my own propensity for asthma attack, and I had to leave, and use my rescue inhaler. At any price this unit is a health hazard!

Another problem is lack of soundproofing. One owner wrote that, “I’d be happy if I didn’t hear my neighbors. I was told that what I was describing should not be the case. I’m not an expert, but this leads me to believe the wall is defective. I’m certainly not tearing down the wall and fixing this with my own dollars. When the construction team blew insulation into the wall, I was told that I shouldn’t be hearing what I had described. These floors are shit, scratched and a mess. I will have to replace it, but the noise is totally unacceptable.”

Many owners are claiming that the hardwood floors that were supposed to be in the units are actually cheap engineered wood that scratches and warps easily.

Another owner wrote that their unit has been repeatedly flooded with sewage, causing mold to develop in their unit, and in the adjoining unit. Owners also stated that the exterior of the building is a danger because of exterior metal cladding falling off the building.

Owners I spoke with also feel that Toll Brothers has been acting in concert with the condominium’s board of managers, and that its agent Penmark Halstead has engaged in bad faith, criminal negligence, and blatant disregard for the health and safety of residents and the public. Some owners also allege that Toll Brothers violated the Martin Act in the offering of its units. The Martin Act gives the Attorney General power to regulate condo sales under the state’s securities disclosure law. That law requires the Attorney General’s office to accept for filing all offering plans which provide full disclosure. The Martin Act rules that private plaintiffs may bring fraud and breach of contract claims arising from cooperative or condominium offerings. Frustrated owners also held a meeting with the building’s board members on March 20. About 50 residents showed up to vent their frustrations with the Board.

One of the main issues that came up was the air infiltration of the windows. The Board said that they have hired engineers to look at it, and are currently awaiting a report, which, they said, will be made available to everybody. One woman asked the Board who the engineers were who had inspected the windows, and where all the paperwork was, and asked if the windows had been built to specification. The response was that the Board has the paperwork but “some of it was lost.”

Another big issue is how Toll Brothers is not correcting the owners’ complaints in a timely manner, and more often than not, have not been receptive to their complaints at all. The Board conducted a questionnaire and as many as 88 owners have some form of complaint regarding their units. The Board apparently had a meeting with Toll Brothers this past Tuesday. They claimed Toll Brothers have “changed their tune.”  It seems during the meeting, Toll Brothers recognized that the many complaints represent no just isolated incidents, and are serious problems. They claim that Toll Brothers have agreed to remedy the complaints, not just with quick fixes.

There was a derisive and cynical reaction by some of the owners in regards to Toll Brothers’ sudden “miraculous” turnabout. One member of the Board did admit that Toll Brother’s offer to remedy the complaints is “too little, too late,” and no one wants to wait for them to come through with their promises; thus she advised that the owners continue to complain and push Toll Brothers.

The Board members said that they do not want to force or advise how each individual owner would want to proceed in regards to Toll Brothers when it comes to litigation, as this is a route they prefer the owners would avoid because it is lengthy, and costly; but, the pro-side is that you have a good chance of winning. The con also includes going public, and thus drastically affecting your chance of renting and/or selling your place if you choose to. An obvious scare tactic that shows how bad the problems are.

One owner brought up the issue of ground water and mold. One of Board members said, “This is the first time I’ve heard about mold.”

This was a surprise since the Board has a report from Mold Pro regarding this issue.

When confronted with the fact that there are issues in some units, and the storage units with water and mold, the Board explained that when it comes to basements, there is always a risk for water and pipes breaking, and that mold is something one should expect. Also, the individual owners are responsible to store their belongings in such a way to prevent the formation of mold.

It should also be noted that some owners have filed with the Attorney General’s real estate finance bureau stating that it’s impossible to assert their legal rights and protect their homes, since the Toll Brothers are a Fortune 1000 company with unlimited legal and political resources. So it seems that the Toll Brothers have a lot of work to do to satisfy owners who believed that they were buying a quality product from a well known developer.

The City also has to claim some responsibility. The late Jane Jacobs predicted this in a letter to Mayor Bloomberg and the New York City Council when she wrote to them in April 2005 regarding the Williamsburg/Greenpoint waterfront development. She wrote,

“the proposal put before you by City staff is an ambush containing all those destructive consequences, packaged very sneakily with visually tiresome, unimaginative and imitative luxury project towers. How weird, and how sad, that New York, which has demonstrated successes enlightening to so much of the world, seems unable to learn lessons it needs for itself. I will make two predictions with utter confidence. 1. If you follow the community’s plan you will harvest a success. 2. If you follow the proposal before you today, you will maybe enrich a few heedless and ignorant developers, but at the cost of an ugly and intractable mistake. Even the presumed beneficiaries of this misuse of governmental powers, the developers and financiers of luxury towers, may not benefit; misused environments are not good long-term economic bets.”

It’s too bad no one listened to her. I hope this story helps the residents of Northside Piers who did nothing but buy a home on good faith that the Toll Brothers were providing them a quality-built home. Now it’s up to the Toll Brothers to do the right thing!

Still on fire,
Phil

Comments

  1. BQE says

    A correction.

    You state:
    ‘One woman asked the Board who the engineers were who had inspected the windows, and where all the paperwork was, and asked if the windows had been built to specification. The response was that the Board has the paperwork but “some of it was lost.”’

    As someone who was at the meeting, I can assure you that the Board was completely transparent about who the engineer was. It’s not clear what you’re referring to when you say “the paperwork,” and I don’t recall anyone asking where same was. But, the report from the engineer was announced to be available in the next two weeks. Lastly, never did anyone on the board say that any paper work was “lost”.

    Did you attempt to verify any of your points with the Board directly?

  2. TCL says

    It was made clear by the Board that the reports for the windows will be available to all the owners. However, when the lady posed the question, the time frame she was referring to was during construction and before the units were sold. So thus, after the buidling was constructed, were there anybody inspecting the windows to see they were up to specs?