In 2007, private equity investor Michael G. O’Hara made the trek from Miami to New York City with his wife, Glorimar, and two children in search of a home. The couple, who are active in philanthropy in New York, ended up purchasing a three-floor triplex apartment in a five-story building at 5 E. 13th St., for $8.2 million.
Three years later, the family’s neighbor, The New School, unveiled plans to build a 16-story, $353 million University Center at 65 Fifth Ave., spanning the east face of Fifth Avenue from 13th St. to 14th St. — the largest construction project in the university’s history. The New School’s partners in designing and building the University Center included real estate firm The Durst Organization; architectural firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill; Tishman Realty & Construction; and Langan Engineering & Environmental Services. Construction began in December 2010, and at present the building is slated to open in fall 2013.
On January 30 of this year, however, the O’Haras slapped The New School and its partners in the project with a $17 million lawsuit, claiming the construction is responsible for damage sustained at the family’s 13th Street home. The suit accuses The New School, Durst, Tishman, SOM, and Langan of failing to ensure that the project followed proper safety protocol to avoid environmental damages like soil erosion and structural displacement.
The O’Haras claim that the construction at 65 Fifth Ave. has moved their condominium by at least four inches — resulting in structural damage to their property and leaving cracks in the walls, contorted door frames, and warped windows that are unable to open or close.
“Plaintiffs are suffering irreparable harm, and their five-story home is incurring substantial damages as a result of the defendants’ violation of New York law regarding the protection construction project entities must afford adjacent properties,” the suit reads. “The building continues to settle and move at an alarming rate, causing cracks to appear and continue to widen in the walls and floors.”
Multiple sources from organizations involved in the litigation claim that both Langan Engineering and Skidmore, Owings and Merrill would assume the bulk of the legal and financial responsibility, as it would have been their duty to ensure that the damages described in the suit did not occur.
The O’Haras and their lawyer both declined to comment to the Free Press regarding the current status of the case. The New School’s general counsel, Roy Moskowitz, and university spokesman Peter Taback also declined to comment on pending litigation.
The suit is far from the only complaint against the massive project at 65 Fifth Ave. According to the New York City Department of Buildings, neighborhood residents have levied at least 35 citations against The New School and its partners since construction started. The complaints became so prevalent that the city issued an order of inspection, and forced the project to cease construction on January 27 of this year. The project was halted because a damaged hoist on a crane was designated as a potential safety hazard.
Employees of neighboring Joe, a coffee shop on 13th Street, have their own complaints about the construction project, which has resulted in structural damage sustained by the shop. “We’ve had to fix our door three times, because it’s literally moving,” said Jessica Bertin, a barista at Joe. “I know that [the coffee shop’s owners] were in communication and tried to get [the construction] to stop, but nothing has happened,” Bertin said.
It is uncertain whether the O’Hara lawsuit will be settled outside the courtroom, but Durst spokesman Jordan Barowitz told New York real estate magazine The Real Deal that his company has had a good rapport with the project’s neighbors.
“We can’t discuss the specifics because of the pending litigation,” said Barowitz. “But we have been working with our neighbors to address their concerns since the project’s inception.”
The New School, meanwhile, will continue construction of the University Center — lawsuit or not.