The East Village was transformed long ago from a collecting point for immigrants to one of the most sought-after neighborhoods in the city. Yet it has remained largely the same landscape of five-story tenement buildings. But lately there’s been a spate of sixth floors and penthouses added to century-old buildings in the area. They’ve largely been the work of one architect, Ramy Issac, who’s become the go-to guy for these additions. And while City Councilwoman Rosie Mendez is claiming they violate the 1929 multiple-dwelling law, the Department of Buildings has let them be built.
“We had been getting these complaints, so my staff looked into it,” said Mendez. “This one architect was the common link. So we contacted DOB, and told them about the improper use of enlargements, and they did more research and found three architects who were doing these illegal enlargements, but in the case of the other two, they were isolated incidents. For Issac, it was a way of doing business.” (Issac’s office hung up when New York called for comment.)
Typical of his projects is 515 East 5th Street. Magnum Management purchased the building at the end of 2005, and hired Issac to add a sixth floor and penthouse. Tenants who refused buyouts accused Magnum of harassment and intolerable living conditions. “It’s been hell,” says Monte Schapiro, who lives on the fifth floor and whose apartment sustained considerable damage during construction. The DOB allowed the construction to go forward, so Mendez’s office requested another investigation by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development. HPD brought legal proceedings against Magnum, including citations for building-code violations and charges of harassment. (The case is ongoing, though the penthouse is finished.)
An e-mail from the DOB states that an audit revealed that “an unprecedented number of the permits issued to Mr. Issac” turned out to be “non-compliant with the Building Code and Zoning Resolution.” On April 12, Issac voluntarily surrendered his privileges to “self-certify” that his building plans were legal. Still, the DOB refuses to “generalize” about tenement additions. If the DOB allows this practice to become the norm, expect many more to come. So bureaucratic inertia could effectively repeal an 80-year-old law that was never meant to be a historic-preservation tool but managed to be one of the most powerful means of maintaining the character of the East Village.