Did Sen. Jon Corzine Keep Park Ave. Condo as His Back-Up Plan?

In February 1998, Jon Corzine, then chairman and chief executive of Goldman Sachs, and his wife, Joanne, committed to buying a $15 million, 5,000-square-foot duplex condo at 515 Park Avenue. The 42-story tower on 60th Street was being developed by Zeckendorf Realty with an investment from Goldman’s Whitehall Group.

A real-estate source involved with the building said Mr. Corzine bought the apartment with the intent to live there. But in February 1999, Mr. Corzine announced that he would run for the U.S. Senate from New Jersey. (He and his wife raised three kids in Summit.) The Park Avenue move was put on hold when he started his Senate bid, but, the source said, Mr. Corzine would have lived there had he lost. He spent $60 million on his successful campaign and took office in January 2000; his apartment went on the market a few weeks later for $21 million. That price was reduced to $19.5 million in April.

On Aug. 3, the Corzines signed a contract to sell the 11-room penthouse, which was held in Ms. Corzine’s name, for about $18 million to Alan Meltzer, the 56-year-old chairman and chief executive of Wind-Up Records, a New York-based independent label, and former CD wholesaler and record retailer. His wife Diana, 56, is a vice president at Wind-Up; she discovered Creed.

On Sept. 7, Mr. Meltzer said that he and his wife had spent the summer shopping for a new condo on the Upper East Side. Their deal on Mr. Corzine’s apartment was final in late August; they haven’t put their current apartment on the market yet.

The11-roomduplex, on the 32nd and 33rd floors of 515 Park, features four bedrooms, five-and-a-half bathrooms, a 600-square-foot living room, a wood-burning fireplace and a terrace. (Common charges are $5,300, and taxes are $7,700.)

Mr. Corzine didn’t return calls for comment. But an aide at his Newark, N.J., office said the Senator, whose only home in New York at the moment is “a vacation house” in East Hampton, had no plans to buy another Manhattan apartment.

THE HARLEM PROBLEM: PLENTY OF BUYERS, NOT ENOUGH LAWYERS

Fifty-eight West 120th Street is not a remarkable building, though the 1890′s house stands on a pretty block, west of Mount Morris Park and east of Lenox Avenue, that has become popular in the Harlem real-estate boom. None other than Maya Angelou, poet laureate of black America, has laid out a $10,000 deposit toward buying the three-story house. But so far, a bureaucratic tangle over ownership has left the deal in limbo. Unfortunately, the house’s situation has become an old story in the new Harlem.

As of 1996, the house was owned by Evelyn Mardenborough, who, neighbors said, was proud of the place and maintained it nicely for decades, raising her children there. But when she passed away that year, she left no will, and the building passed by default into the hands of Ms. Mardenborough’s troubled daughter, Melanie Allen.

“It became a full-on crack house,” said one neighbor of the property. Newspapers reported an epidemic of drug-related violence on West 120th Street in 1996, and in 1998, Ms. Allen served a six-month sentence for the sale and possession of a controlled substance.

Neighbors wrote letters to city and federal government officials, hoping someone would clear out the building and sell it to someone who could take care of it. Before long, they had their wish: The building was shuttered in 1998.

Now the property is listed in the city register under the ownership of Selwyn Roberts, the proprietor of the Harlem real-estate management company S R Realty Group Inc. “I bought it from the owner of the property, Melanie Allen,” said Mr. Roberts, who refused to comment any further. The sale was recorded by the city in May 2000 for $130,000.

Ms. Allen could not be reached for comment. But Letitia Oliver, a friend of Ms. Allen who said she has power of attorney for her, still holds a deed for the property in her friend’s name. “She never signed anything,” Ms. Oliver said. “We’ll fight this.”

The confusion spreads to the city. According to Department of Finance spokesman Jim Moses, “We can’t tell you who owns the property.” Mr. Moses referred callers to the city’s Department of Investigation, where spokesman Patrick Clark said the city department investigates “allegations of wrongdoing involving city agencies.”

However, after “running this question up the flagpole,” Mr. Clark said he could not comment on the building or confirm that it was the subject of any investigation. “We don’t comment on pending investigations, even to say that there is one,” he explained. According to Mr. Clark, the Department of Investigation looks into complaints about city officials and oversees inspectors in the Department of Buildings, who have the power to draw up deeds on property for owners who can prove their identity and are listed in the city register as the owner of record.

The issue had not been raised until Ms. Angelou first saw 58 West 120th Street with Mr. Roberts and Terry Lane, the president of the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, who is widely credited with bringing former President Bill Clinton to the neighborhood. Ms. Angelou “fell in love with the place,” according to one broker who was at the building at the time. As recently as two weeks ago, another broker trying to get Ms. Angelou to consider another property was rebuffed. She “won’t give up on it,” the broker said. (Ms. Angelou did not return calls to her office at Wake Forest University, where she is the Reynolds Professor of American Studies.)

There is no indication, however, of when 58 West 120th Street will be eligible to be sold to anyone–a problem which, according to Harlem real-estate brokers and lawyers, has become a frequent headache in the Harlem real-estate market.

Lawyer Christina Lee, who has lived in Harlem for more than 20 years, specializes in intellectual-property law, but has made real-estate law a big part of her practice because people in the neighborhood have needed her help so often. She said that only recently is the extent of the paperwork problems with Harlem properties becoming clear, since they’re changing hands at such an accelerated rate. “Because the stock has been in the same hands for a long time, it may be 40 or 50 or 60 years since a title report has been brought out,” she said.

The most frequent problem has to do with wills: As the generation that bought houses in Harlem in the 1930′s passes away, sons and daughters, nieces and nephews are taking de facto control of properties that have never actually been willed or deeded to them. According to broker Willie Kathryn Suggs, who owns an eponymous brokerage in Harlem, establishing the ownership of a building before the sale is a frequent challenge in the area. “We don’t have the same kinds of clean deals up here that you may have downtown,” said Ms. Suggs. “The average seller is living in the house 30 years, and half the time you think you have something solid and you don’t.”

In one case, Ms. Suggs was going through a single-family townhouse with a seller when she noticed three gas meters in the basement. Later, her suspicions were confirmed: The house had been converted into a multi-unit dwelling and then back into a single-family home, all without the benefit of legal counsel. “The certificate of occupancy didn’t match the building,” Ms. Suggs said, which would add another negative–loads of paperwork–to the buyer’s burden.

In another case, she was on her way to selling a Harlem townhouse when she discovered the owner was dead. The son’s family had taken over the place, but there had never been a will. “That house wasn’t going anywhere,” Ms. Suggs said.

Buyers, brokers said, can incur thousands of dollars in legal fees to get these matters cleared up, on top of whatever renovation costs may be necessary. And in Harlem these days, huge renovations are the norm.

Still, Harlem real estate is hot, and more and more property is being rehabilitated and put on the market, thanks in large part to city and federal programs over the last few years that have provided incentives for local developers to fix up delinquent properties. The city has been divesting itself of properties acquired from tax-delinquent owners in Harlem by selling them through a series of programs. Under one, spearheaded by the Giuliani administration in late 1999, the city reduced the number of delinquent properties it owned in Harlem from 615 to 45. In the 1970′s, 65 percent of all Harlem property was owned by the city. That number has now been reduced to less than 10 percent.

Ms. Suggs and Vie Wilson, a vice president at the Corcoran Group who started selling Harlem real estate 15 years ago, say programs like these have provided them with lots of business. And the rampant publicity the neighborhood has received since Bill Clinton moved into his offices on 125th Street has only added to the commotion.

“It was happening before Bill Clinton even thought about being up there,” said Ms. Wilson. “It’s been building up for the last couple of years, and it’s continuing to do so because still, overall, it’s the only location in Manhattan which is still virtually affordable.”

And Maya Angelou isn’t the only big name shopping in the neighborhood. Ms. Wilson and others said they have been showing houses to Cece Peniston, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Don Williams, DMX and Roberta Flack, all of whom have recently bought or are looking for a house in Harlem.

CHELSEA

DEALER’S PRIZE ANTIQUE: 6,000 SQUARE FEET FOR ‘A COUPLE’ MILLION Twenty years ago, Niall Smith, an Irish antiques dealer with ash hair and white eyebrows, moved into a 2,000-square-foot loft at 150 West 26th Street. About a month ago, the building went condo, and Mr. Smith was able to buy his apartment–plus the two other apartments on his floor–for “a couple million,” giving him a total of 6,000 square feet.

Mr. Smith’s new apartment, in a building that had once been a sweatshop, still had holes in the concrete floor where sewing machines had been bolted down. Although he let the space remain industrial-looking–there are no moldings on the walls, the concrete floors have not been covered with wood and the sprinkler system is still visible on the ceiling–he filled the space with Biedermeier furniture, circa 1815 to 1835, one of his areas of expertise. “It is a very primitive space done in high style, with very high-style furniture and objects,” he said. “A Biedermeier loft completely taken over by books.”

Mr. Smith, who owns a store on Bleecker Street called–what else?–Niall Smith, is a big advocate of decorating with books. “It is the only way to put a personal stamp on an apartment,” he said. In fact, when Mr. Smith joins his current apartment with a second one, he’ll add a space to store his books. “I need the room to accommodate my library,” he said. Work has already begun on that renovation.

Mr. Smith said he’ll rent out the third apartment fully furnished. “I will probably do one room Biedermeier, one room Irish, one room English and one contemporary.” It will have two bedrooms, a large living space and, of course, a library.

UPPER EAST SIDE

1020 Park Avenue

Four-bed, four-bath, 3,000-square-foot co-op.

Asking: $3.9 million. Selling: $3.85 million.

Charges: $3,870; 50 percent tax-deductible.

Time on the market: eight weeks.

LADY LEAVES HER TARA TO A STARTER FAMILY The seller of this giant apartment had created a duplex out of two high-floor apartments in this postwar building on Park Avenue at 85th Street nine years ago. The results, according to broker Linda Homler-Ferber of Douglas Elliman, were impressive. “She kept updating it,” said Ms. Homler-Ferber. “And she had kept it in great condition.” On the first level, the foyer leads to a corner living room with a wood-burning fireplace and many windows, and then a formal dining room with its own terrace. Also on that floor are an eat-in kitchen, a library, two bathrooms and a maid’s quarters. Upstairs are four bedrooms, two more bathrooms and a den with a wood-burning fireplace, a wet bar and an entrance onto another wraparound terrace. “Everybody who looked at this apartment told me you felt like you were in a house,” Ms. Homler-Ferber said. And with four exposures on two high floors, “it is as bright as a New York apartment can be.” A young couple, planning to have children and eager to settle down in one place that would be a lasting home, won the apartment over multiple bidders. This co-op likes families. Said Ms. Homler-Ferber: “Some co-ops these days want to interview the kids, you know.” This one doesn’t, though apparently it’s anxious for the new owners to have some.

MIDTOWN

10 Park Avenue

One-bed, one-bath, 850-square-foot co-op.

Asking: $499,000. Selling: $460,000.

Charges: $795; 45 percent tax-deductible.

Time on the market: one day.

THE PEPSI CHALLENGE A young Pepsi executive came to an open house at this building near 34th Street in June, but the apartment didn’t have a big enough living area. Luckily, listing brokers Garret Turnbull and Brian Rice of the Corcoran Group had just run into a guy in the lobby who’d suggested they show his apartment to anyone looking for something a little different. The guy owns a studio in the building as well as this one-bedroom apartment with a sunken living room, which he’d decided not to bother renovating. It turned out the Pepsi lady was up for the renovation. “She loved the step-down living room, and even though the other apartment was in excellent condition, she really enjoyed this one,” said Mr. Turnbull. The sale was negotiated within a week.