No one said that converting a large rental building into condominiums was going to be easy—especially when tenants keep living there.
The developer Kent Swig and his partners bought the Sheffield on West 57th Street two years ago and planned numerous renovations as part of the conversion to make it more appealing to upscale condo buyers. But they’ve had to work around the 80 or so tenants who remained because they’re protected by rent regulations.
More than 23 market-rate tenants won a court victory last month that permits them to continue living in the Sheffield even though their leases have run out. Mr. Swig and his partners are appealing that decision.
But the rent-stabilized tenants have been lodging their own attacks on the renovation process. Three outside consultants they commissioned have found asbestos in the Sheffield’s floor tiles and ceilings, and have suggested that the renovations may have disturbed the asbestos.
Mr. Swig maintains that the rent-stabilized tenants’ actions constitute “harassment,” and that he has more than complied with the law.
The presence of asbestos in a building in and of itself is not illegal, according to a city Department of Environmental Protection spokesperson, but it is when the cancer-causing agent is airborne in sufficient quantities and when abatement work is not done by qualified workers. Even the tenants’ association, which has fought the new owners, concedes that the D.E.P. tests have come out negative, but it is asking the agency to take more samples.
Despite the protections that existing tenants have been given, the conversion of the 845-unit, 48-story Sheffield into a luxury landmark has touched sensitive nerves about the loss of affordable housing in New York City. Now, the tenants have enlisted the support of City Councilwoman Gale Brewer, State Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, State Senator Tom Duane and Congressman Jerry Nadler, who either attended or sent representatives to a tenants’ meeting last week.
“This is not a building that you think this would be happening in,” Ms. Brewer told The Observer. “According to residents, this renovation is not being done properly, and I think we need some facts.”
The conversion, which got under way in 2005, has been controversial virtually from the start.
“Swig Equities is running an extraordinary campaign of tenant abuse and harassment,” Mr. Gottfried said in an e-mail. “It’s pretty shocking. City agencies and the courts really need to step up their actions to protect the tenants.”
The city’s Department of Buildings said that it’s begun conducting an audit of permit applications in response to “community concerns.”
“If we find the plans do not comply with the building-code regulations, the applicant will have to take steps to come into compliance,” department spokeswoman Kate Lindquist said in an e-mail.
Before the renovation started, a certified asbestos investigator hired by the developer found that the floor tiles contained asbestos material, but stated that it would not be disturbed during the construction.
However, the state Department of Labor fined a contractor working on the Sheffield conversion $2,000 in February for sealing asbestos-containing floor adhesive without an asbestos-handling license, according to a letter sent by the agency to the contractor. On a recent tour of the building, The Observer saw that tiles in many hallways had been removed and coated with some sort of material and that the stucco-like ceilings had been sanded down. Wallpaper had also been removed; one of the elevators was off-limits; and the sweet smell of mold hung in the air.
Mr. Swig—whose firm, Swig Equities, controls 1.5 million residential square feet in Manhattan—said that the flooring contractor had indeed had a license but simply misfiled his paperwork.
“The fine was done and the paperwork was refiled,” he told The Observer. “I am very straightforward. I do work exactly according to the code.”
The renovations—which include new electrical wiring, new elevators, upgraded hallways and new plumbing—started last fall and will be complete by the end of the year, he added.
“It is tough to live through construction,” Mr. Swig said. “However, the faster we get it done, the better off everybody is. And frankly, the residents have hit the lottery—they are going to end up with one of the finest buildings in New York City, and the rent-stabilized tenants are going to be able to stay in the building with regulated rents.”