Durst, New School face $17M suit over alleged condo damage

University construction causing adjacent building to break apart, couple claims

TRD New York /
Feb.February 07, 2012 06:00 PM

With campus space becoming increasingly tight, the New School enlisted the Durst Organization and architect Skidmore Owings & Merrill to develop and design a new $353 million academic and dormitory space, dubbed the University Center, on Fifth Avenue in Greenwich Village.

But now a couple who lives next door to the construction site is claiming the project has shifted their five-story condominium building at 5 East 13th Street by at least four inches and is causing the gradual destruction of their home.

In a suit filed in New York State Supreme Court Jan. 30, Michael and Glorimar O’Hara are seeking $17 million from the New School, Durst, SOM, construction manager Tishman Construction and the project’s engineer for allegedly failing to implement safety measures that would prevent soil erosion, heavy vibrations and the other side effects of a major construction undertaking.

“The building continues to settle and move at an alarming rate, causing cracks to appear and continue to widen in the walls and floors,” the suit says. “The walls in plaintiffs’ home are experiencing new and ever increasing cracks; they have separated from the floors.”

The New School announced its plans to build the 16-story addition, on Fifth Avenue between 13th and 14th streets, almost two years ago. The largest project in the school’s history, the University Center is set to add 354,000 square feet of space to the New School campus, including new classrooms, an 800-seat auditorium, a library and a 612-bed dormitory.

Excavation kicked off in December 2010, and the building is scheduled for completion in fall 2013, according to the school’s timeline.

Since then, the O’Haras claim, the construction has wreaked havoc with their home, a triplex condominium made up of a two-unit combination. It was not immediately clear how many other residents live in the building, or whether they would also file suit.

Since 2009, at least 35 complaints have been filed with the Department of Buildings in connection with the project, including one lodged in mid-January of this year that claimed excavation work was undermining an adjacent building. A DOB inspector noted that the agency had already documented a similar complaint, likely one dating back to March 2010 where an inspector found that no “undermining” was taking place.

DOB ordered the builders to partially stop work at the site Jan. 27 because of a “defective hoist” on a crane there, but allowed work to continue Jan. 30, city records indicate.

In the suit, the couple detail a litany of complaints, from uneven and cracked floors, to distorted and jammed metal doorframes, bathroom shower stalls that have pulled apart, crumbling tile grout, buckling interior doors and windows that no longer close properly, and misaligned cabinetry, among other things. The O’Haras blame the defendants for apparent mental anguish and decreased property values.

The O’Haras purchased the two condos for a total of more than $8.2 million in January 2007, according to property records. They live there with their two children, ages 2 and 6, the suit says. Their attorney did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

“We can’t discuss specifics because of the pending litigation, but we have been working with our neighbors to address their concerns since the project’s inception,” Jordan Barowitz, a spokesperson for Durst, told The Real Deal.

“We’re very excited about it,” Stan Biederman, a spokesperson for the New School, said of University Center.

A spokesperson for Tishman declined to comment on pending litigation. A representative for SOM did not immediately return requests for comment.

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