Love they neighbor. Not!
An unneighborly feud is roiling East 91st Street, where a 12-story edifice by Redeemer Presbyterian Church is rubbing up against a modest, eight-story brick co-op building.
Plans call for the church to build right up to the property line — just 3 feet from the windows of some co-op residents and their fire escapes.
The eight tiny studios in the co-op’s O line — with one fire-escape window opening plus a smaller bathroom window — would be affected the most.
The residents of 160 E. 91st St. are pleading with the church to give them 5 feet more — allowing for an 8-foot span between the buildings.
“I don’t think 5 feet of space so we can have proper air and light is really too much to ask,” said one co-op resident, Manny Gordon.
Last week, the co-op launched a website, justfivefeet.com, to garner community support. The site notes: “They would rather turn our apartments into dark, airless deathtraps than scale back their project a measly five feet . . . all so they can make their megachurch even more mega!”
Under the current plan, the website says, “residents of these apartments could be trapped with no light, no ventilation, and no way to safely exit the building in the event of a fire.”
The co-op includes 125 apartments, with 24 facing the church side. The O-line studios include a main room of around 250 square feet. The units sell for around $300,000.
Those apartments “will be rendered completely uninhabitable,” the co-op’s lawyer wrote to the church’s lawyer. “Whatever good deeds are being advanced by the Church, are cold comfort for the residents of the O line.”
The church maintains that its plans for its East Side outpost are perfectly legal, and its property has no zoning or easement restrictions. That contentious 5 feet for the new “worship and ministry center” constitutes 10% of space on the lot, which is 50 feet wide.
According to a lawsuit filed by the church against the co-op, removing those 5 feet would mean additional high monetary costs and would upend the church’s plans. The church’s construction-project website, 150e91.com, says church representatives spent five years hunting for a suitable site, considering hundreds of options.
The Carnegie Hill location “meets key criteria for our vision of a permanent facility,” the church’s website says, including “a design plan that allows us to maximize space to meet the needs of our congregation and be accessible to the entire community.” Plans include a ground-floor “commons” intended to “welcome and serve our neighbors.”
The church’s vision is to “establish a place that serves the greater good of the entire community,” the site further states.
The co-op next door, however, sees no greater good — residents instead see the destruction of their homes and their investments.
The co-op, as an “adjacent property,” is required to let the church erect scaffolding and other safety protections during the years of construction. The co-op is denying access. So the church filed its lawsuit last fall to force the co-op to comply. Both sides say the other refuses to negotiate and is acting in bad faith.
Resident Diane Forgione is one of those who will be most affected. She has occupied her little O-line studio on a low floor since she was 29 years old. She bought it for $100,000.
“I paid off my mortgage last year,” said Forgione, now 56, who works as an executive assistant. “This sucked all the joy out of paying off my mortgage. I thought I had my future figured out but I don’t.” She planned to sell her unit at some future date and retire to the country.
“I didn’t get a lot of light, but it wasn’t darkness, and if I leaned against the window I could look at the sky,” Forgione said. “Now, I wont be able to tell if it’s day or night.”
She also wonders whether anyone would buy such a devalued apartment. And she worries about her escape route in a fire.
A downstairs neighbor, Manny Gordon, would have his bedroom window cast in shadow. The bedroom would become a “jail cell — a sealed-off room, like a vault,” said Gordon, a periodontist. He owns one of the building’s many small one-bedrooms, which cost in the mid-$500,000s.
Gordon joined his neighbors in a rally last week to distribute flyers and urge support for a web petition.
“The church has rejected all of our requests and pleas,” he said. “I am looking for their understanding and compassion. It amazes me they are behaving toward us in such an inhumane manner.”
For more than a century, an 18-foot-wide lightwell separated the co-op from the adjacent six-story rental building. It was a trash area rather than a pretty courtyard, Gordon said, but it did allow for air and light.
The co-op board president, Meena Rao, is dismayed that church representatives “didn’t even come inside our building to see what the apartments are like and how they will be affected,” she said. Her one-bedroom is on the side away from the construction.
“We are taking all the steps we can to protect our shareholders,” said Rao, who’s the director of organic chemistry labs at Barnard College.
Meanwhile, the residents contend with the usual construction burdens of noise and mess. The Department of Buildings site shows several recent complaints of loud construction work happening outside of permitted hours and on weekends. “We cannot have peace, even on Saturdays,” Rao said.
The church bought the parcel for nearly $30 million about three years ago. By that point, the rental building on site was vacant. It has since been demolished.
In court papers, the church’s lawyer says that church representatives met with co-op representatives “as a courtesy” to preview the project. “This type of kickoff meeting and level of transparency is not typical and reflects Redeemer’s commitment to have a positive relationship with its neighbors,” he wrote.
The design team, however, concluded “that it simply was not possible to redesign the Project as requested” and still achieve the church’s “programmatic goals,” involving things like classroom size and bathrooms.
A 5-foot reduction would create a drastic impact, the church maintains. And it’s not uncommon, throughout the city, for lot-line or property-line windows — along with views — to be lost to construction.
In court documents, the church’s lawyer says, “Now they’re forcing us to do the things that we didn’t want to do, which is make this public, litigate it, incur the uncertainty of the litigation, and possibly suffer the delay.”
The co-op’s lawyer shot back: “The DOB was not given the full picture in order for them to approve the particular plans. . . The impact to the O line is significant and catastrophic.”
The plans do not appear to violate any building codes. The Fire Department declined to comment and referred questions to the Buildings Department.
“There is no legal requirement for the development at 150 East 91st Street to provide a side yard, court or other open space along the shared lot line with 160 East 91st Street,” according to Andrew Rudansky, a spokesman for the Department of Buildings. He declined to comment specifically on lawsuits between private parties.
There was never an easement agreement between the co-op and its earlier rental neighbor, which would have allowed for the open space to remain. Easements remain with the properties, even if the properties are sold.
“Per a recent DOB inspection of both the construction site and the co-op building conducted in late January, the side fire escape located at 160 East 91st Street was found to be adequate and unblocked,” Rudansky wrote in a statement. “The side fire escape discharges the building occupants through a passageway in the cellar, which takes them to the front of the building.”
The allegations against the church are “unfair and misleading,” a spokesperson for Redeemer East Side said in a statement.
“While certainly headline-grabbing, there is no applicable law that they can point to that says these units will be uninhabitable due to diminished or insufficient light, nor do they cite any expert report or study to support their claims.”
As for fire-escape safety, “these allegations are completely unsupported by any law or expert opinion,” the spokesperson wrote. “Redeemer’s new building complies with all legal requirements regarding fire code and the separation of buildings.”
The co-op continues to seek support from City Councilwoman Julie Menin and Community Board 8. The parties remain at loggerheads.
“The sticking point is the hardship aspect and the damage it’s doing to our lives,” Forgione said.
Ex-Brit turned Manhattan resident since 2008.