Who doesn’t love an underdog story? In this case, developers.
Often builders must buy several homes to make way for projects, and given what they can offer, the strategy generally works. But in rare cases, homeowners dig in, shifting the power and creating a standoff that even money can’t resolve.
When developers build around holdouts, the surviving properties — known in China as “nail houses” — are something to behold: small homes wedged between skyscrapers, or low-rise corner buildings encased by high-rise towers.
In light of a story out of Queens this week — about a homeowner refusing seven-figure offers from developer Tavros Capital — we revisit some famous holdouts in New York history.
Herman was a rent-stabilized tenant at 134 East 60th Street. In the early 1980s, Cohen Brothers Realty bought three brownstones and the Dollar Dry Dock building, according to the New York Times, sealing ownership of the whole Lexington Avenue blockfront between East 59th and East 60th. They planned to develop an office and retail building, but when they approached Herman about leaving her brownstone, she refused. The developers then razed the other two row houses, removed the fifth floor from Herman’s (she was on the fourth), and built around it. By 1986 she was the sole occupant of the building, the Times reported. She died in 1992 at the age of 69.
Macy’s ‘Million Dollar Corner’ holdout
In the early 1900s, Macy’s began acquiring land for its famous Herald Square flagship. It reportedly reached a verbal agreement to buy the corner plot at West 34th Street and Broadway, but at the last minute, the land was sold to a representative for rival department store, Siegel-Cooper, which had recently built what it claimed was the world’s largest store. The reported plan was to use the West 34th Street parcel as leverage to get Macy’s to relinquish a lease at West 14th Street and 6th Avenue. When that failed, the owner erected a five-story building on the corner, which was later enveloped by a Macy’s sign as part of a leasing agreement.
When developers Will and Arthur Zeckendorf bought the famed Mayflower Hotel in 2004, they assumed responsibility for buying out, and in some instances relocating, its rent-regulated tenants so they could build 15 Central Park West. The first three went easily, according to the New York Post, but the fourth, a highly intelligent but unaccomplished recluse named Herbert Sukenik, was a conundrum. Sukenik, who had lived in the building for 30 years, initially told the developers he didn’t want money — just a new home with views of Central Park. They showed him a two-bedroom at the Essex House on Central Park South, and thought they had a deal. But Sukenik got a lawyer and the negotiations changed. Eventually a deal was struck for what Will Zeckendorf reportedly called “by far the highest price ever paid to [relocate] a single tenant in the city of New York” — $17 million, a source told the Post.
Col. Jehiel R. Elyachar
Described by a longtime tenant as a “tiny, skinny, bent-over little gnome of a man,” Col. Jehiel R. Elyachar was the eccentric owner of a tenement building on West 63rd Street. In the 1960s, property tycoon Paul Milstein inquired about buying the building — one of many needed to make way for a 43-story tower at the corner of Broadway. While other owners agreed to sell, Elyachar drove a hard bargain, continually raising his price and then backing out after a price was agreed upon. Elyachar had other ideas, too: a direct swap, maybe a charity donation. Eventually, Milstein walked away, according to the New York Times. The development at One Lincoln Plaza went ahead, and the tenement remained in place. “It sticks out like a sore thumb,” longtime tenant Billy Cobin told the Times in 2010, “or a finger — which is probably what the colonel had in mind.”
Retired baker Benito Barba bought his brick row house on 23rd Street in Long Island City with a cousin in the 1970s. The 86-year-old is now refusing to budge as Tavros Capital buys adjacent homes to construct a condo development. Barba’s grandson told the New York Post that the 100-year-old property was “precious to him” and no offer could make him leave. The 45-story project will go up around him.
Hudson Yards holdouts
In 2015, two holdouts living in an apartment on West 35th Street and 10th Avenue finally ended their standoff, accepting a tidy $25 million from Tishman Speyer. The pair were the last men standing after Tishman acquired the building for its project at 435 Tenth Avenue. At Related’s nearby Hudson Yards development, the final holdout — a McDonald’s branch — also agreed to sell in 2015.