Behind White Bricks: The Interior Collapse of Two Fifth Avenue

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Photo: J_barry's flickr

There’s a war waging behind the pale façade of one of the Gold Coast’s most iconic — and celebrity-studded — co-ops. At the stately Two Fifth Avenue, the white brick exterior has been crumbling for years. It’s an exterior problem that’s been solved by temporary fixes, but now that the board is contemplating a wildly expensive permanent solution, the Two Fifth’s interior is imploding.

Amid allegations of fraud and nepotism, the building that bold-faced names like Ed Koch, Bella Abzug, Larry Kramer, and the heir to the Marshall Fields fortune have called home, ousted its cooperative board earlier this month, replacing it with all new members. At issue is a $40 million renovation of the building’s façade that residents say could cost them anywhere from $90,000 to $300,000 each, depending on the size of their apartment. “It has been complete hell,” said one shareholder, who declined to be named for fear of isolating herself from her neighbors. “We know values are going to drop until this whole thing gets sorted out.”

The saga began two years ago, when lower Fifth Avenue was shut down after bricks on the seventeenth floor of the building bulged and threatened to come loose. Like many buildings with glazed white bricks, residents of the 343-unit high rise, at the northwest corner of Washington Square Park, knew it would eventually have to replace the façade. But as engineers began to probe, it became clear that loose bricks were the least of the problems. Relieving angles were missing, ties were disintegrating, and support beams that were erected with the building in 1951 needed mending. Each terrace must be replaced, and costly pipe scaffolding must be erected.

In October, a pandemic of panic took hold when the board announced the scope of the work that was needed. Residents took issue with the consultant who was hired to oversee the project and her $300,000 fee, and a complicated nineteen-page survey meant to determine which owners could afford to pay the assessment further ruffled feathers. Angry e-mails began to circle, and ad hoc committees were formed to rally neighbors and organize an opposition.

In the wake of such antagonism, not one member of the old board ran for reelection. This included Rudin Management Co., which built the building and continues to own several rental units there. Until this month, Rudin has always maintained a seat on the board. “There was just a great deal of concern and anxiety on the part of the shareholders,” said Phil Coltoff, the former chief executive of the Children’s Aid Society who was voted in as the new board president. “Many of us felt we were being left in the dark, and the board was not providing sufficient leadership.”

Adelaide Polsinelli, a real estate executive who has lived in the building since 1986, has been on the coop board for ten years, most recently as president. Her brusque style alienated many residents, and in a letter announcing her decision not to seek reelection, she alleged some of the building’s residents had “a personal vendetta” against her.

She said the board had put in place financing and was prepared to start work renovating the façade in September. “No one is more capable than I am to solve this problem,” she said. “The fact is, however, I’m dealing with the average lay person who hears how much it will cost and panics.”

The new board said it is getting up to speed on the project, which is expected to take at least two years to complete. It filed plans with the Department of Buildings and plans to meet with the Landmarks Commission and local Community Board 2 in the next ten days.

Currently, there are eight apartments for sale at the building, according to StreetEasy, ranging from $8.75 million for a four bedroom to $1.199 million for a one bedroom. Brokers expect to see many more listings hit the market over the next several months, as news of the façade work spreads.