The residents of a pricey Williamsburg apartment building with a history of unpermitted construction were forced out last week after the Department of Buildings found that the building "has questionable structural integrity." The Bedford Lofts complex was taken over in 2014 by the brother-in-law of landlord and developer Menachem Stark, after Stark was kidnapped and his burned body was found in a dumpster in Long Island. A studio in the building at South Fourth Street and Bedford Avenue was listed for $5,250 until this afternoon.
On November 10th, Department of Buildings inspectors found that 3,000 square feet of structural framing and concrete floor had been built without permits. They returned last Tuesday and gave residents of the five-story building's 20 or so apartments an hour to leave, writing in a notice that the building is "imminently perilous to life." and is of dubious soundness due to "the installation of substandard structural steel columns, trusses, beams, welds."
"It sucks. Why would they do this right before the holiday?" now-homeless resident Cristal Ledesma told the New York Post. "I'm really starting to get stressed."
Prior to the vacate order, the building had a long history of buildings violations, first as an on-again off-again construction site where, records show, the city cited and fined Stark $19,000 for failing to secure the fence, and for contractors working without permits and without safety equipment. Also fined was contractor Amkay Plumbing and Heating—$8,000 for failing to report an accident. None of those fines were paid, records show.
In 2012, while the building was still under construction, a day laborer was found stabbed to death in the then-stalled work site.
In December of 2013, a buildings inspector reported that residents were being forced to move into the building even though construction wasn't finished and the building lacked a certificate of occupancy, records show. The city waived the violation this July when the Buildings Department granted a certificate of occupancy, but fined the LLC run by Stark's brother-in-law Abraham Bernat $400 around that time for illegally converting two apartments into short-term vacation rentals.
The agency said in a statement that the latest inspections were part of an audit of recently constructed buildings but declined to identify the focus of the audit and did not answer other questions about past inspections. There is no direct evidence of wrongdoing here, but the departments of Buildings and Housing Preservation and Development are semi-regularly rocked by corruption scandals. Most recently, 16 inspectors from both agencies were arrested along with 31 property managers and landlords on bribery charges.
Among other oddities surrounding Bedford Lofts' filings, its registration with HPD lists the building as five stories tall and containing 20 apartments, whereas the certificate of occupancy indicates it is four stories tall and contains 18 apartments.
A Buildings Department spokesman apologized to residents for the harsh pre-Thanksgiving evacuation.
"While we understand the inconvenience and stress this put upon families, particularly during the holiday season, keeping people safe has to be our top priority," Joseph Soldevere said.
Soldevere said significant work will be required to address Bedford Lofts' structural problems, but that it won't necessarily have to be torn down.
Responding to questions for a previous Gothamist story about a rash of shoddy construction in Bedford-Stuyvesant, DOB spokesman Alex Schnell said that if the prospect of fines in the thousands of dollars and professional sanctions doesn't deter developers from ordering unpermitted work, the prospect of not being able to obtain a certificate of occupancy will. That doesn't seem to have happened here. The department is in the midst of a hiring blitz as part of a de Blasio administration reform effort.
The Red Cross is offering emergency relief to the estimated 50 homeless former residents.
Former tenant Lindsay Freeman told the Post she received an evacuation notice from the building's management even though she moved out a year ago. She condemned Stark and Bernat for charging astronomical rates to live in a death trap.
"It's disgusting. New York is a hard enough place to get by, especially when you're young and just starting out. The building looks beautiful, but it’s all held together with paper clips and gum. To exploit people like this you must literally have no soul."
Stark's burned body was found in the parking lot of a Getty gas station in Great Neck in January 2014 the morning after he was kidnapped outside of his South Williamsburg realty office. Stark owed tens of millions for tanked business deals and several tenants in several apartment buildings he owned suffered from his severe neglect, prompting the New York Post's front page headline "Who didn't want him dead?" Satmar Hasidic Jewish leaders and Brooklyn politicians protested the Post's critical coverage and called for a boycott of the newspaper, saying Stark was a philanthropist in his community.
A Crown Heights man named Kendel Felix has been charged with Stark's murder and allegedly confessed to snatching him with an accomplice and killing him accidentally while trying to scare him into paying money he owed. His trial has been pushed back since he was indicted in the summer of 2014. His next court date is set for late January.
Architect Karl Fischer, who signed off on the Bedford Lofts construction plans filed with the city, did not respond to a request for comment. Neither did Ideal Properties Group, which advertised apartments in the building, writing, "The fundamentals of luxury, space, comfort and modern elegance take on a whole new dimension in these stunningly conceived and brilliantly executed lofts in prime Williamsburg."
Bernat did not immediately respond to a call for comment, and a man who answered a number listed for the BAC Group, which filed for the building permits in 2006, said he had not heard of the company.