Is London Terrace Now Falling Down? Tenants Raise Hell

Cheri Dorr had been renting in Chelsea for more than a decade when, eight years ago, she finally was able to purchase the dream apartment for young, single professional women in New York City: a studio apartment in the upper stories of the storied London Terrace.

Now she has filed a multimillion-dollar civil suit against the board of managers, building manager Douglas Elliman and Westfair Restoration Services, claiming negligence and breach of contract.

The reason? A gaping, 12-foot-by-five-foot hole in her ceiling.

Since 1930, London Terrace’s tall, crenellated towers, set in a massive network of brick buildings stretching over an entire block of West 23rd Street, have cast a formidable shadow over Chelsea. Although the four towers went co-op, the ten interior buildings comprising London Terrace Gardens remain rentals under separate management (and are not involved in Ms. Dorr’s suit). It’s the kind of building that has always served as a dormitory for the ambitious young set that at one time might have done the department stores and then Schraft’s during a midtown lunch hour, and nowadays are likely to be found sipping cosmos and talking shop in the downstairs boĆ®te Bette, run by ambitious Chelsea poster child Amy Sacco.

Watched over by housemothers like Blondie’s Debbie Harry and photographer Annie Leibovitz, former first daughter Chelsea Clinton and her generation are its signature residents nowadays.

Despite its celebrity inhabitants, London Terrace recently made headlines under less-than-glamorous circumstances.

On Dec. 2, 2004, Housing Court judge Gerald Lebovits ruled in a landmark case that the co-op board could terminate the proprietary lease of resident Michael Davis for “objectionable behavior.” Mr. Davis was accused of numerous violations, including reportedly stealing from residents, storing his belongings in the hallway, blasting music, and having sex with a homeless man in the health club’s showers.

But even with the objectionable tenant gone, life recently became stranger for many tenants.

Since Feb. 1, about 160 apartments at 465 West 23rd Street have been without the “luxury” of a working stove or oven. A plumber working at Bette-Ms. Sacco’s restaurant-accidentally ruptured a gas line.

“Major Disruption at 465,” proclaimed the co-op’s quarterly newsletter. Residents were informed that repairs would soon be made, with a hole cut in each kitchen to install new pipes. Considering the possibility of many elaborate and expensively renovated kitchens, this could prove a difficult adjustment for the tower’s upscale tenants.

One morning in September 2004, a few innocent drips appeared in Ms. Dorr’s ceiling.

“Honestly, had I not had a dog that was sitting under the drip,” said Ms. Dorr, “I would have left for work. And that would have been really bad, because the whole thing came tumbling down.”

Ms. Dorr brought her two French bulldogs to her nearby graphic-design office and returned 20 minutes later only to find chunks of heavy plaster falling from the ceiling.

Lauren Topelsohn, Ms. Dorr’s attorney, stressed that she is seeking the maximum amount possible for her client-in both compensatory and punitive damages.

Besides the ostensible problem-a crater-sized hole in the ceiling-Ms. Dorr recalled another unpleasantness.

“It’s an old building. So when the ceiling opens up, it’s just putrid.”

According to Ms. Dorr, right after that first rainstorm, she stocked up on candles to mask the smell, and started sleeping on a tarp in the corner, an unlikely place to lay one’s head in a luxury co-op.

“The Anne Frank suite, I like to call it,” she said.

She remained fearful that more pieces might fall during the night, with rainstorms predicted for the upcoming week.

On Sept. 18, Ms. Dorr’s parents traveled down from Cape Cod to watch a bitter late-season match-up between the Yankees and Red Sox. Remnants of Hurricane Ivan struck the city, wreaking havoc on the transit system, but not stopping the game. While her parents were watching the Red Sox get clobbered in a very sloppy game in the Bronx, the floodgates were opening up downtown.

“I estimated 400 or so gallons of water in about an hour. It was a very traumatic day in my life,” said Ms. Dorr about the second storm. “That whole day is kind of a blur at this point. I had to get all the dumpsters up there. I was screaming for help.”

She moved out on Nov. 4, after Douglas Elliman and London Terrace deemed the room “untenantable” and leased Ms. Dorr a rental unit, the suit alleges.

On Dec. 20, 2004, Ms. Dorr was advised that Westfair Restoration services conducted a mold-removal test, and the apartment tested negative, according to the suit.

However, upon returning home, there appeared to be mold on the perimeter wall. Ms. Dorr claims that before the scheduled repair work, she tried to get written representation that there was no mold in the apartment, but was denied.

“Mold is everywhere in your life, whether you know that or not,” said Ms. Dorr. “When you see it, and it’s green and it’s furry and it’s growing up the wall, then it’s probably mold.”

Since the Westfair test came out negative, she was expected to return. Although it was agreed that the ceiling would be cleaned, the point of contention became whether the wall-where Ms. Dorr believes mold to be-would be addressed.

“I circled it on the wall and wrote “MOLD?” in big letters.”

Seeing is often believing, and Ms. Dorr remained unconvinced of Westfair’s conclusion. She selected Olmsted Environmental Services to give a third-party opinion. Edward Olmsted, a certified industrial hygienist, found mold growing in the plaster, wood flooring and on paper lining. Since 1991, he has tested for mold in many apartments and even the New Museum.

Skeptical of airborne tests-like those allegedly performed by Westfair-Mr. Olmsted believes the data may have produced a “false negative,” even when there is visible mold.

“What I found odd is that if you look at the history of the water damage there, water flowed in due to some problems with storm drainage,” said Mr. Olmsted. “And what strikes me as pretty odd is that anybody would think you only needed to remove the ceiling, and not the wall. They both got significantly water-damaged, and if you’re pretty certain that mold grew in one, it had to grow in the other.”

“Air samples are good when it’s hidden,” said Mr. Olmsted. “But they’re a secondary tool.”

Attorney Steven Sladkus gave a statement on behalf of the defendants:

“We deny all allegations of wrongdoing. London Terrace has been ready, willing and able to perform whatever repairs are necessary if they are London Terrace’s responsibility. Plus, all attempts by London Terrace’s expert to discuss plaintiff’s claims with Mr. Olmsted were ignored by Mr. Olmsted.”

Mr. Olmsted said that he did not ignore the attempt to discuss the conflicting data.

“I did get called by Cesar [Goday] at Westfair, and I left a message back for him,” said Mr. Olmsted. “And we’ve just missed each other. But we indeed haven’t spoken.”

Regardless of the phone confusion, Mr. Olmsted admits that there is an ongoing debate in his field about the hazards of breathing in mold. However, in his opinion, it is best to proceed on the side of caution.

“The golden rule in all of this is you’d never want to get caught using air-sample data to say there’s not mold when there’s visible mold growing in the place,” said Mr. Olmsted. “It’s rather embarrassing for a person who’s done these kind of surveys.”