Facade Face-Off! Malkins Fixed Up Building, Now Owner Wants Them Out

Last year was a busy one for Tony Malkin, and 2011 is looking to be more of the same. He was embroiled in a minor scandal for refusing to light his landmark Empire State Building in honor of Mother Teresa’s centennial. A few months later, Malkin, seeking to protect views of his tower, was unable to stop rival Steve Roth from winning approvals for 15 Penn Plaza. Meanwhile, Malkin’s extensive renovations to the iconic skyline topper continued, restoring its cache and restocking it with tenants.

Now, Malkin’s W&H Properties, which he runs with his father Peter, have come under fire for similar renovations, though they may only be a ruse.

Just down the block from the Empire State Building, at 112 West 34th Street, W&H retrofitted the 26-story, wedding cake-style office building. The Malkins do not own the 1954 building, and instead control a 114-year lease. Now, developer Charles Cohen is suing to rescind the Malkins’ lease at 112 West 34th because they altered the building’s lobby and replaced the facade, according to The Times. You’d think they were doing Cohen a favor, keeping the building in a state of good repair with this $81 million renovation, but as always, there is a catch:

In concept, this dispute is not all that different from when a landlord tries to evict a tenant for unauthorized alterations, like painting the walls black or installing a washing machine. But in scale, this dispute is much greater.

The Malkins, a father and son best known for controlling one of the city’s architectural symbols, the Empire State Building, have said in court that Mr. Cohen’s charges are nonsense, merely a ploy to break the lease. It is easy to see why they want to preserve the lease: It was signed in 1963, lasts until 2077 and sets the current rent at $840,000 a year, a small fraction of what the Malkins receive from the office and retail tenants they have filled the building with.

So Cohen is basically looking for any excuse to kick the Malkins out, in no small part because, as one broker consulted by The Times points out, the building could easily demand more than 10 times its current rent in today’s market. Kinda makes you see where the Cohens–who did not sign the lease but instead bought it up years ago–are coming from.

Still, for the building nerds among us, the most interesting part of the lawsuit is that it may hinge on semantics.

At least twice The Times refers to the Malkin’s “structural changes” being an issue, as in this passage: “Mr. Cohen said the Malkins, who lease the building, had no right to affix a new glass facade to the 26-story building, at 112 West 34th, and to try to glamorize the narrow entrance with marble and an undulating 30-foot-high ceiling. The Malkins’ W&H Properties, according to the lawsuit in State Supreme Court, had failed to get Mr. Cohen’s permission for those structural changes, as required by a lease dating to 1963.”

Yet any student of architecture can tell you that the glass-walled facades that have come to define the modern office building are, unlike their brick forebears, exactly that, a facade. They serve no structural purpose, simply an aesthetic and environmental one. In this case, both had been diminished, as the glass had faded over the years–this one of the first generation of glass curtain wall buildings in the city–and it “leaked like a sieve,” according to one person familiar with the renovations. It appears Cohen wanted everyone inside the building to be as uncomfortable as he was with this deal.

mchaban [at] observer.com | @mc_nyo

Facade Face-Off! Malkins Fixed Up Building, Now Owner Wants Them Out