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06.25.2008
Windermere's Many Fans
Judge rules owner must repair crumbling landmark

As far as buildings go, the 127-year-old Windermere apartment complex on the corner of 9th Avenue and West 57th Street is one of the most litigious in the city. Starting in the 1980s, when a new landlord attempted to illegally evict tenants of the 165-unit SRO, it seems as though the Windermere has almost constantly been in court.

While much of that time has been spent protecting Windermere tenants, the most recent court date was a face-off between TOA Construction, the Japanese owner of the three-building complex, and the Landmarks Preservation Commission. On May 9, a Manhattan Supreme Court justice issued a preliminary injunction against the owners, requiring them to repair the crumbling complex or face severe penalties.

That’s good news, since the Windermere once looked as though its days might be numbered. As more and more tenants died or moved on, the possibility began to arise that the buildings might finally be vacated and demolished to make way for new construction on the prime site.

Fearing the loss of one of the oldest apartments in the area, a number of preservation groups took up the Windermere’s cause. Despite a fight waged by TOA, it was designated a landmark on June 28, 2005. “Everyone has taken notice of this extraordinary building at the corner of West 57th Street and 9th Avenue,” commission chair Robert Tierney said at the time. “Its architectural, cultural, and historic significance make it a terrific addition to our collection of landmarks on West 57th Street.”

One of TOA’s tactics was flagrant neglect of the building. Rats, roaches, leaky ceilings, and subzero temperatures, as well as a total lack of general maintenance, have been widely reported. Conditions were so bad
last year that seven remaining tenants were evicted by the fire department because the building was deemed unsafe.

Fortunately, its landmark status has kept the apartment standing, because any demolition would have to be approved by the commission. Through the leverage of the city’s landmarks law, the commission can impel the owners to restore the buildings.

“I’m always pleased that the judiciary responds to our landmarks,” said John Weiss, deputy general counsel for the commission, who added that only a half-dozen other owners had to be taken to court. (Steven Sieratzki, TOA’s attorney, was unavailable for comment.)

The future of the building remains in doubt, especially as its aging landlord, Masako Yamagata, is said to be in no condition to take charge of its disposition. “I think the owner is 90,” said Gale Brewer, the local council member who has helped lead the effort to rescue the structure. “I don’t even think his attorney gets a hold of him. There’s nothing there. It’s like fighting with air.”

Matt Chaban