I’ve spoken to two market-rate tenants who are, in fact, thinking about buying once the conversion rolls around. Laurence L. Gottlieb, a ten-year veteran of the Apthorp, runs Fundamental Advisors, a private- equity fund managing distressed debt. He describes his decision in the baldest business terms: “I need to make money, I have to make money, and their plan is to make money. Yes, there is project-execution risk. But I think that, properly managed, the asset will hold its value.” The other tenant, Sam Merrin, is an art dealer who leased a free-market five-bedroom rental on the fourth floor (red-herring price: $10,600,000) a mere four months ago. Is the price fair? “It’s certainly on the top end,” he admits, “but on the other hand, this is a top-end building. Once all the things are put into place, this is going to be that type of building. My daughters can play in the courtyard. I can drive my car right in there! I’m in love with the look of the building. Maybe I shouldn’t be saying that now, but I’m in love with it.”
Most of the current residents, however, don’t view the red-herring quotes as genuine offers to buy in. “To our ears, these prices seem fanciful,” says Ronald Blumer. Other adjectives going around: “insulting” and “insane.” “I simply don’t think there is this kind of money in the building,” tenant Lynn Grossman, the wife of actor Bob Balaban, says, laughing. And while some residents say they plan to wait and see if the management produces some sort of insider discount, Mann and Jon Herbitter, president of Mann Realty, won’t say if anything of the sort is in the cards.
The vast majority of renters are simply afraid they’ll be muscled out (in the case of the rent-regulated tenants) or priced out (in the case of the free-market residents), their rents jacked up by such extreme amounts—double? triple?—that they’ll have no choice but to leave. It’s hard to say how many people have already left the Apthorp since Leviev entered the picture (one can’t separate distressed movers from normal turnover), but a recurring guesstimate, which Mann and Herbitter call far too high, puts that number at about 30.
The condos are being priced as high as $12.5 million. One tenant calls such figures “fanciful.” Other adjectives going around: “insulting” and “insane.”
No one is more spooked than Nancy Robbins is. A theater veteran who was an extra in the Grease movie, she has, for the last 33 years, made her home in the Apthorp’s 720-square-foot Penthouse L with her husband, Michel Dumerchat. (In the upside-down world of the Apthorp, the “penthouses” are the smallest, dingiest units; back when each floor had only ten apartments, they were used as servants’ quarters.) Robbins moved here in 1974, when rent ran $300 a month and prostitutes lined the Broadway sidewalk below. Now, with her rent under $1,000 and her apartment valued at $1,620,000, she says she’s been served an eviction notice. The grounds? Having ants in her planters. Needless to say, Robbins is convinced that the management is trying to kick her out by any means necessary. Mann and Herbitter call her “difficult” and deny putting any undue pressure on her.
When Robbins reluctantly agrees to speak with me, our meeting begins in the lobby of a nearby Chase branch: She’d rather I not announce myself to building security lest Mann somehow find out she’s talking to the press. Thus, my first-ever steps inside the Apthorp have a furtive, cloak-and-dagger air. We silently pass by the guard booth, take a quick right in the fabled courtyard, cross an Italianate lobby, and step into a wood-paneled elevator. For a second, Robbins’s ants-in-planters chatter sounds piped in from another planet; there’s a chandelier in the elevator, for God’s sake. There’s also a friendly elevator attendant. Vestiges of a bygone era, the building’s four elevator guys spend their time zipping between floors, making small talk, collecting and spreading rumors, and delivering mail off a wheeled wooden contraption. Ex-tenant Rosie O’Donnell once got so taken with one attendant, George, that she booked him as a guest on her morning talk show.
The elevator stops, the chandelier clinks. Robbins throws open the door to Penthouse L. A second later, I’m staring at the most horrific water damage I’ve ever seen. “We’ve had leaks here since forever,” says Robbins, gesturing at the destroyed wall and disfigured ceiling. “The old owners supposedly repaired the roof, after which there were major leaks. Then the new owners scraped the walls, after which water began streaming down the walls. I finally called 311. And two weeks later, the building came after me.”