Walk down Broadway—say, from Zabar’s to 78th Street—and it’s bound to slow your step: a gated, vaulted, three-story-high entrance carved into a block-square Renaissance Revival limestone building, framing an almost paradisiacal glimpse of private courtyard (gatehouse, evergreens, a fountain nymph). A spasm of class envy is unavoidable, more so because the sight is unexpected: Unlike Londoners or Parisians, New Yorkers are not exactly used to peering through lacy front gates into forbidden palisades. Our street grid is supposed to be our great equalizer.
The Apthorp was born to both blend into and defy that grid. Formally divided into four buildings, A through D, it looms in a massive quadrangle around a courtyard the size of a small park, with a circular, cobblestone driveway coiled inside. The building—compound, really—used to be accessible from West End Avenue as well; now, the second gate is permanently shut, and the Broadway arch provides the only public peek into the storied world of the Apthorp.
The uninitiated might expect the building to be populated by a kind of East Coast Who’s Who, and, to an extent, it is: Al Pacino, Conan O’Brien, Cyndi Lauper, Rosie O’Donnell, and 60 Minutes’ Steve Kroft have all lived here, as has Nora Ephron, who wrote about falling in (and then out of) love with the building last year in The New Yorker. At the same time, more than half of the Apthorp’s 163 units are rent-regulated in one way or another. Hence, it’s mostly home to the kind of crowd one associates with the Upper West Side of the postwar, pre–Lincoln Center days: intellectual, lefty, Jewish—New York’s own version of the Greatest Generation. Sophisticated is the word Maurice Mann, the building’s current co-owner, used no fewer than four times, during one conversation, to describe his tenants.
In the cuckoo context of New York’s lotterylike rent laws, sophisticated can also mean cliquish, fiercely self-protective, and litigious. Apthorp tenants openly warred with the building’s previous owner, 390 West End Associates, in one case successfully proving that the landlords had wrongfully wrested apartments out of regulation. A “luxury decontrol” law passed in 1993, which took rental privileges away from those earning $250,000 or more, also picked off a few veterans (including, eventually, Ephron, who made the highly symbolic move across the park). “Market rate” tenants, some paying more than ten times their neighbors’ rent, took the place of the departed. By 2002, the Times was bemoaning the building’s evolution “from comfortable West Side icon to gilded palace for the very, very rich.” That complaint, however, turned out to be premature. To date, only 40 of the units have gone market rate; 79 are stabilized, meaning that their rents can only creep up by a preordained percentage each year, and 17 more are rent-controlled, meaning that their rents are all but frozen from time immemorial. (The remaining 27 are vacant.) Overall, thanks in no small part to its tenants’ tenacity and legal acumen, the Apthorp has stayed gloriously motley—the last of Manhattan’s grand all-rental behemoths.
Up until this year, anyway. On March 7, Africa Israel Investments Ltd., a company on a diamond-fueled New York buying spree, picked up a 50 percent stake in the Apthorp. Its president, enigmatic Israeli multibillionaire Lev Leviev, a newcomer to the New York real-estate game, had announced his entrance with a bang: by purchasing the old Times Building on 42nd Street. Leviev’s rapidly multiplying Stateside interests include a few 7-Elevens in Texas, a massive residential-development plan for Gowanus Canal, and a high-end jewelry store in the works on Madison Avenue. He is also one of the main bankrollers of Chabad, an idiosyncratic subset of Judaism with a Brooklyn headquarters, and pals with Vladimir Putin.
Leviev swooped in on the property a mere three months after its owner, Mann Realty, had purchased it from 390 West End Associates. Unlike Maurice Mann, who claims to have known he was going to own the Apthorp the moment he strode into its magical courtyard last fall, Leviev, who spends only a few days a year in the U.S., bought into the building sight unseen. The original deal was said to preserve the Apthorp’s structure: Mann told the Times outright that he was going to “maintain it as a very high-end rental and to keep it exactly the way it is.” On March 8, one day after Leviev had bought in, The Wall Street Journal reported that the Apthorp—now split 50-50 between Mann and his new partner, with Mann Realty staying on as the building’s manager—would go condo.
With his diamond-derived billions and autocrat friends, Lev Leviev cuts an intimidating figure. “You think you have the worst landlord possible, and then you get this guy,” says one tenant with a nervous laugh. “I mean, I think he was wanted in the Hague!” He wasn’t, but the existence of the rumor says a lot about how wary tenants are of him. Leviev is also, as a recent Times Magazine profile called him, the “Missionary Mogul.” To call him merely active in Jewish charities is to significantly understate matters: His long-term goal is to provide free Orthodox education for every Jewish child in America. His Chabad ties feed fanciful theories that sometimes seem tinged with anti-Semitism. A comment on real-estate blog Curbed.com, for instance, imagines Leviev marketing the Apthorp to Orthodox families and building a temple on the premises. Earlier this month, when the new management prohibited outside personnel from working in the building for the Jewish holidays, some occupants feared this heralded a new, pious regime. Maurice Mann—a landlord with a long and respected history in New York—didn’t fire up the tenants’ imaginations nearly as much. His early reviews from inside the building were mainly positive; for one thing, he had won quite a few hearts and minds by removing two garish alabaster lions that his predecessors had installed at the Broadway arch.
As late as July, Mann and Leviev neither confirmed nor denied the condo rumors. They were “exploring their options.” But residents were on edge, their fears running from massive rent hikes to flat-out evictions, and for some, the worst-case scenario happened almost immediately. Over the spring and summer, as lease after lease expired and got renewed, the building’s market-rate renters saw their rents rise by jaw-dropping sums all across the price spectrum. Apartment 3KS, a two-bedroom, went from $6,000 a month to $14,865. The monthly rate for one five-bedroom went overnight from $24,000 to $35,000. It is rumored that the monthly rent for at least one particularly spacious unit rose to $54,000—an impressive figure even for the rarefied Manhattan luxury-rental market.