City Agencies Descend on Lead- and Asbestos-Choked Apthorp Building

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Then again, lead and asbestos can be so pretty. Photo: Oscar Hidalgo/New York Times/Redux

The Apthorp, a block-long residential citadel on the Upper West Side, is one of the city's most iconic buildings, commanding monthly rents deep into the five figures. It's also, according to many tenants, a hilarious hellhole forever on the verge of crumbling into a pile of asbestos and rotten carpet. In 2007, we chronicled Mann Realty's bumbling attempt to turn the Apthorp partly condo; since then, Mann was replaced by Andrew Ratner of the Feil Organization, who's renovating the building with about as much success as his predecessor. In fact, after five months of tenant complaints, the Health Department is conducting a sweep of the building this very afternoon.

Ratner started off well enough, gathering a "town hall" with tenants last August. By October, however, the Apthorpites were seeing "asbestos chunks" in public areas and watching construction workers "string ungrounded electrical cable all over the place," says a source in the building. Worried that their actual apartments would soon be disturbed (the management wants to fit every unit for central air), they brought in a certified court expert in hazardous materials, who found both lead and asbestos levels well above the legal limit. The tenants say they sent the results to Ratner, hoping to resolve the matter quietly, and got no traction. The next round of testing, this January, showed lead and asbestos "through the roof." Strings were pulled; City Council member Gale Brewer took up the cause; the city agencies got interested in turn, with the departments of Environmental Protection, Buildings, and finally Health showing up to do their own inspections.

Granted, the Apthorp tenants were always an eye-rollingly exacting bunch. (One has sent us a blurry photo of a construction worker as red-hot proof that the guy is "not wearing any removable booties; and that for cleanup, rather than a mop, vacuum, negative air machine, he's got a sweep broom, which only serves to hoist dust into the air.") Then again, it's hard to argue with a laundry list of wipe samples quoting six, eight, ten times the legal amounts of lead in the air, in one case defined as "an imminent hazard to the occupants" of an apartment whose tenants, notes the report, include a 4-year-old child. The Apthorpites, needless to say, are ready to go to war, and seem to have sufficient ammunition. The Feil Organization hasn't yet returned our calls.