Leonard Steinberg, El-Yachar’s colleague at Elliman, has two clients who bought in the building. “We were told we would close in four or five months,” he says. “We weren’t given a particular deadline,” agrees Van Der Knaap. “There was a general understanding that certain things needed to be finished but that it wouldn’t take long. We were told a couple of months, basically.” Then came the first delay: All the new windows the builders had mounted—single-glazed, in keeping with what was there before—needed replacing. They were leaking, really no better than the originals, and the contractor had to install a stronger, better alternative made from aluminum that conformed to Landmarks’ standards. The buyers were understanding: “We thought, That’s a good reason to be late,” says Steinberg. Then, more holdups materialized: “It always came down to ‘We had to get Buildings approval on blah blah blah,’ so it was delayed another four months, another four months, another three months.”
From here, the story becomes a Gordian knot, and it’s tough to tease out what happened when. But it appears that all work stalled in 2003. A couple of buyers walked. David Yurman, the jeweler, was rumored to be in contract for the thirteenth floor but finally let the deal go. (Yurman’s representative had no comment.) Still, most everyone, including Van Der Knaap, hung on.
Landmarks thought it had approved something far more modest than the 20-foot-high penthouse that had been built.
The problem was the penthouse. Somewhere along the way—and when exactly this happened is debated—it appeared to grow from thirteen feet high to twenty. The building’s mechanicals—vents, flues, pipes—were also replaced and moved to the top of the addition; recreation space, per the City Planning Commission, was also added. At an April 2005 Landmarks meeting, Rogers Marvel (soon to become the architect of record; Lombardi says he had long since moved on to other projects), represented by principal Jonathan Marvel; Scott’s lawyer; and the buyers and their brokers attempted to hash the whole thing out.
According to the transcripts, the commission appears to have believed that it had greenlighted something more modest than the twenty-foot-high penthouse that had actually been built. (The panel was largely made up of new members, though some had been at Lombardi’s presentation in 1996.) Robert Tierney, now the head of Landmarks, says today, “It was never approved by the commission at twenty feet.” But at one point in that transcript, commissioner Richard Olcott comments, “How it got from thirteen to twenty feet is a mystery, and it got overlooked and approved mistakenly. And that’s very unfortunate.” (One plausible scenario has the modified plans slipping through a review by junior staff members at Landmarks.)
Lombardi attributes the confusion to “a change in mind-set. If you stand in the square and look around the buildings, the other additions are highly visible. They very much stand out.” Turner agrees: “These penthouses—none of them are in keeping with a Landmark look, but they were all approved.” Van Der Knaap, who was at the meeting, doesn’t understand why Skylofts wasn’t. “I thought Landmarks was always about beauty, about improving the neighborhood. I come from Amsterdam, where buildings are, like, 400 years old. You can paint a window and you don’t have to go through all of this . . . I would’ve expected that discussion to be, Does it look good? Is it in line with the character of the building?” On this subject, Tierney would say only that his group looks at “appropriateness.” What does that mean, really? Come to think of it, what did “minimally visible” mean in the first place? The whole imbroglio could well hinge on nothing more complex than semantics.
Or perhaps times have just changed. When Skylofts was approved, says another source close to the situation, “we were revitalizing buildings during a recession. But this has just taken so long, and Tribeca is now supersensitive. . . . One set of commissioners was comfortable with one set of aesthetics, and another was stricter.” Some say Scott, for whom Skylofts was a first project, may have found himself in over his head. “Larger entities would’ve been in and out,” says an insider. (Calls to Scott’s office were referred to the broker.) Marvel, for his part, refuses to blame Landmarks. “We had a challenging project with a lot of moving parts,” he admits. “It’s the extra complexities of conversion.”
A longer view suggests that this story could be a sign of things to come. Several other Manhattan projects—including conversions that may not easily meet Landmarks’ stringent requirements—are moving far more slowly than has been typical. “Red tape exists on all governmental levels, particularly with this boom,” says a source in the development business. “Landmarks has doubled the amount of projects it needs to review, but it has had the same budget for ten years.” Tierney flat-out denies that Landmarks is overburdened, but he will acknowledge that he’s inherited a tangle: “A lot of [this] was before my time . . . I’m just picking up, trying to make something work here—we did make it work.”