From his penthouse balcony, photographer Jan Staller, who lives at 161 Charles Street, has a fine view of the hole in the ground next-door at No. 163.
It could be worse.
That’s where developer Barry Leistner is planning to build an eight-story glass-and-brick condominium building that would likely block Mr. Staller’s river views.
Mr. Staller—who claims to have already accrued over $100,000 in expenses from lawyers, supervising engineers, consultants and architects—has been able to hold off the construction over several issues.
Mr. Staller alleges that the excavation at the beginning of the construction caused significant damage to both his four-story townhouse and backyard carriage house.
Ever since Richard Meier’s celebrity-filled condominiums first towered over Perry and Charles streets, a frenzy of development has gripped the far West Village.
And so real-estate battles have become commonplace on these (formerly) tranquil cobblestone streets, ensnaring historical preservationists, flashy condo developers, renowned artists and architects, and a handful of nosy neighbors.
At the urging of preservationists, the City Council passed a neighborhood down-zoning last fall that capped the height of new construction to 100 feet.
But three much-disputed developments squeaked through under a grandfather clause: Julian Schnabel’s nine-story addition to his stable building on West 11th Street; a two-story addition at 166 Perry Street; and Mr. Leistner’s project at 163 Charles Street.
For Mr. Staller, none of this looked like it was in the cards when he moved from Warren Street in Tribeca to Charles Street in December 1992.
He dropped $990,000 on the two 19th-century buildings—the smaller of which he rented out for about 12 years. Although significantly more limousines and Maybachs zoom by these days than Volvos and taxicabs, Mr. Staller still envisions “a very nice neighborhood where people [maintain] good relations.”
Mr. Staller not only resides at No. 161, but also installed a dark room and utilizes the garage as “an informal gallery.” (When deep-pocketed collectors aren’t perusing his photography, a white Ford Taurus remains parked inside.)
The artist’s idiosyncratic residence includes an art installation of orange molded training pistols in the living room, a silver drive-in movie speaker (which once served as his intercom) mounted near his desk, dozens of glossy culture magazines piled on the floor and retro, snot-green medical cabinets that wouldn’t look out of place in a Damien Hirst exhibition. “It has a kind of utilitarian elegance to it,” he said.
Utilitarian elegance is a theme with him.
“It’s very much in keeping with my being drawn to the river, and the West Side of Manhattan, and the afternoon light,” Mr. Staller told CNN about his decision to both live and work in this area, in an artist profile a decade ago.
That was in 1996. Just a few years later, Mr. Staller realized that construction at 173 and 176 Perry Street would obscure that view, and came up with a plan.
“I commissioned an architect to come up with a design for a penthouse, so that I could access the river view that way,” said Mr. Staller, from behind his thick, round glasses, facing out onto the Hudson.
After the penthouse was built, Mr. Staller’s next-door neighbor, art dealer Kenny Schachter, revealed his plan for a nine-story building, designed by architect Zaha Hadid.
Mr. Schachter asked him to sell his air rights, while insinuating that construction might block the front terrace view, according to Mr. Staller.
“I don’t think you have a right to a view,” said Mr. Schachter, who now resides in London. “When you are in New York City, you resign yourself to the fact that development will take place where it takes place.”
But for Mr. Schachter, his high-end development with Ms. Hadid would eventually take place across the pond, in London’s fashionable East End. So, in December 2004, Mr. Schachter sold the 22-foot-wide building to Mr. Leistner for $5.9 million.
Then came Mr. Leistner’s own design for an apartment building at 163 Charles Street.
According to design plans, the eight-story building will include two floors of commercial space, a four-bedroom duplex with outdoor terraces and a two-bedroom apartment comprising the fifth floor. On the sixth through eighth floors, the developer is creating a triplex penthouse with floor-to-ceiling windows and terraces. And Mr. Leistner’s already found a tenant: himself.
“In exchange for my view, he wanted me to give him all of my undeveloped air rights for my building, in order for him to preserve my view,” said Mr. Staller. “Well, that’s actually millions of dollars’ worth of air rights. The view’s not worth that much.”
“I’m a businessman, and I know what has to get done to make things happen,” said Mr. Leistner, who claims that he has always been willing to negotiate to not block the terrace. “He’s just very difficult.”
Last summer, the situation became increasingly difficult.
“In July, I woke up one morning, and this building had developed a half-inch crack,” said Mr. Staller.
On July 25, the Buildings Department issued a stop-work order at 163 Charles Street for failure to protect the adjoining structure during excavation. However, since the department could not prove those specific cracks were Mr. Leistner’s fault—since there were no before-and-after photos at the time—Mr. Staller was also served with a violation for not properly maintaining the building.
“The rear carriage is totally burnt out anyway,” said Mr. Leistner. “He has a couple of cracks in the floor of his garage, which we’re going to put injection grouting and patch the slab and paint.”
But there could be issues besides for the carriage house.
“By December, this is when we observed that my front door would no longer lock properly,” said Mr. Staller. “I noticed, in the front, that the building is tilted.”
But Mr. Leistner’s crew will need access to Mr. Staller’s building in order to complete the underpinning that the Buildings Department requires and start building skyward.
On April 6, the feuding parties met at Mr. Staller’s attorney’s office—each with his own engineer on hand.
“We had a handshake agreement that he’s going to make these repairs, he’s going to pay for them, and he’s going to build the building as planned with the Buildings Department—which afforded me scenic easement on the top floor,” said Mr. Staller.
“Two weeks have gone further and he wants to sue me now, to gain access to my property, to force these repairs on me, without being beholden to the agreement we had,” Mr. Staller continued. “This scenic-easement thing is something he’s been holding over my head the entire time.”
Sidestepping the attorneys, Mr. Leistner contacted his neighbor directly on April 18 via fax:
“If you wish to avoid a costly legal confrontation with me and still reach an amicable solution, I can only suggest that you commit, in writing, to grant my company and its representatives and contractors, immediate access to perform the injection grouting. If you grant such access, I will continue to take steps to preserve your views. The choice is yours, as to how we proceed.”
“I’m really looking to settle with Jan,” said Mr. Leistner. “I’m not No. 1 on his hit parade, I’m sure. But it’s not because of anything that was ever done intentionally.”
“I would like nothing better than to get him to finish his building [and have] my view, and just live in peace with everybody around here,” said Mr. Staller.
Doumanian’s Show House
“When you have a wonderful shell, you can do so many things,” said film producer Jean Doumanian, speaking of her limestone mansion at 4 East 75th Street. “There are very few things you can’t do in that house.”
On April 24, Ms. Doumanian and her longtime boyfriend, banker Jaqui Safra, attended the opening-night gala for the 34th Annual Kips Bay Decorator Show House, located in the couple’s 50-foot-wide mansion. However, Ms. Doumanian and Mr. Safra didn’t have to clear their possessions out before the interior designers took the place over. The 20,000-square-foot home—which has a whopping $55 million price tag—has been empty for several years.
“We always talked about the idea of living in it,” said Ms. Doumanian, who now resides in a luxury apartment building. “I think it’s wonderful for a family or for an embassy. If there’s only two people, you kind of get lost in there.”
Over the years, Ms. Doumanian and Mr. Safra have attended a number of Kips Bay Show Houses throughout the Upper East Side, and when they were asked to temporarily donate their building, the couple was more than happy to oblige.
A day after the black-tie gala crowd cleared out, the mansion’s regal doors opened to the public. Now, by dropping a $30 donation, anyone can pass through the five-story building and gawk at the variety of furnishings and styles used in each room.
During a press preview, several designers emphasized the juxtaposition of old and new objects—from antique textiles to fabrics that could be purchased at a local Target. Indeed, throughout the 22 rooms—which range from a grand master suite to small gallery space—there are decorative pieces gathered from the past 2,000 years of civilization.
For instance, in “The Library”—by Richard Mishaan Design—there’s a statue of Apollo dating from the first century near more contemporary objects, such as a slate sculpture positioned in front of the fireplace. Designer Susan K. Gutfreund decorated one room with both hand-woven Indian silk from Shyam Ahuja and Home Depot bamboo blinds. Throughout the Neo–French Renaissance mansion, there is now state-of-the-art technology—such as L.E.D. lighting by Philips Electronics and plasma televisions—adorning the same walls with master paintings.
Remarkably, the super-sleek televisions don’t look too out of place, even with the well-earned provenance at this address. The townhouse’s distinguished history began with shipping magnate Nathaniel McCready in the late 19th century. Later owners included I.B.M. founder Thomas J. Watson Jr. and Standard Oil heiress Rebekah Harkness, who founded the Harkness Ballet Foundation within those limestone walls in 1964.
And could an affluent buyer show up too?
“I think that somebody might hear about it and come,” said Ms. Doumanian. “They will see that the space could take any kind of design.”
Unlike most open houses for lavish residences, you don’t need a Swiss bank account to get past the front door. The Kips Bay Decorator Show House, which hopes to raise over $1 million for the organization’s Boys & Girls Club, runs through May 23.