Sunday, October 26, 2008

Co-ops look to Glass before renovations

October 26, 2008
This Man Could Ruin Your Renovation Plans
By LESLIE KAUFMAN
http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/26/realestate/26cov.html
A version of this article appeared in print on October 26, 2008, on page RE1 of the New York edition.


Chester Higgins Jr./ The New York Times

NO NONSENSE The austere office of Elliott Glass belies his position as the arbiter of co-op renovations at hundreds of apartment buildings that hire him.


ELLIOTT GLASS answers the door of his office dressed in cuff links and tie, an odd-seeming formality since he is alone in the five-room office suite. Yes, the sign on the office door at 200 Park Avenue says Glass & Glass Architects, but he has no partner. The other Glass, his father, died more than a decade ago.

He has no secretary or associates, no decorations on the wall. For that matter, his office has no Web site, e-mail address or even a computer — especially odd for a modern architect. Mr. Glass, who is 73, does have a telephone, but is rueful about it. He deals with co-ops, and “the shareholders can find you if you are listed,” he said sadly.

But the austere, even stubborn, old-fashioned utilitarianism of his office belies his position in the New York real estate firmament. Thousands of Manhattan’s most elite co-op dwellers do not break a wall or move a sink without Mr. Glass’s approval.

Mr. Glass is perhaps the most prominent reviewing architect in the city. Hundreds of apartment buildings in New York — including many pricey and exclusive ones along Fifth and Park Avenues — retain him to review shareholder renovation plans before they can be approved.

Over the years, the rich and powerful have learned about the otherwise invisible Mr. Glass the hard way: when he rejects a plan to expand a bathroom over someone else’s bedroom or vetoes a kitchen expansion that calls for rerouting main water or gas pipes.

Attempting to circumvent the City Planning Department? Please. Mr. Glass has no patience.

“You know the album cover for the original ‘My Fair Lady’?” asked Erika Belsey, whose firm, Belsey & Mahla Architects, specializes in high-end residential renovations. “Eliza’s the marionette, being manipulated by Henry Higgins, being manipulated by God? That’s Elliott Glass: he’s the god behind the co-op boards, controlling your renovation.”

“When he says you can’t put your washing machine where you want it, forget your distinguished position as editor in chief, C.E.O. or university president,” she continued. “You do what he says — no questions asked.”

Mr. Glass plays down his power, pointing out that ultimately the co-op boards requesting his services make the final decisions based on the reports he writes.

But then, as he admits, they rarely disagree with his conclusions. That’s because he is extremely knowledgeable and accurate, said Paul Gottsegen, the director of property management at the Halstead Management Company, which oversees 80 buildings. “When challenged, I don’t think he has ever been wrong on interpretations of the building codes, which are byzantine.”

Take extensive rooftop renovations, which in Mr. Glass’s opinion are among the most “egregious category of submissions” that he receives, because they impose elements that could adversely affect the overall building. “Several months ago, a designer submitted a plan to develop a penthouse roof with planters that the drawings indicated were solid steel weighing 2,000 pounds each,” he said, his voice rising in disbelief.

But code — while Mr. Glass’s strong suit — is not his only concern. He also considers the building’s best interest, a subject matter open to interpretation. In his reports, Mr. Glass is careful to delineate which concern he is addressing.

While board members and managing agents come and go, Mr. Glass has been in business for decades. In his mind, and in his 60 black metal file cabinets, he has meticulously cataloged renovation histories.

He often knows more than residents do about their co-ops’ policies on arcane matters that become relevant only occasionally — say, whether they will allow stairways between combined apartments.

Steven Harris, the founding member of an architectural firm, estimates that he has worked on 25 apartments with Mr. Glass over the years.

“He is a kind of treasure in a kind of antediluvian way,” Mr. Harris said. “You can ask about the building; he remembers 30 years ago. With other building architects, there is no institutional history.”

Mr. Glass sees all of his decisions as based in reason even when not based in building code. Take the current fad for stoves with pot-filler faucets, for example. He is against them. Not just because it seems silly to him that someone could not walk across a kitchen to fill a pot under a sink, but because a water faucet without a drain under it seems like an invitation for water damage.

Sometimes, his reasoning is broader. Mr. Glass is hesitant to allow people to expand bathrooms over other people’s bedrooms. The issue is not only building wet over dry, which could lead to a disastrous leak. He is also thinking about noise. “A leak happens once, and it is terrible,” he reasons, “but midnight flushing is for the rest of your life.”

He adds, “Noise is the issue buildings receive complaints about the most.”

Patrons and architects routinely ask to move main gas lines, steam lines and water lines so that they can expand kitchens — a move allowed by code. Yet routinely they are denied by Mr. Glass and the buildings who employ him.

As it turns out, Mr. Glass was the reviewing architect for the co-op in the lawsuit in the late 1980s that set the precedent on this.

In Levandusky v. the One Fifth Avenue Apartment Corporation — a highly cited precedent in co-op litigation — the defendant claimed that he had the right to move a steam riser to expand his kitchen, and the building claimed the right to have a stop-work order to prevent the alteration.

The New York Court of Appeals eventually made the tenant move the pipe back, and the case has become cited because it legitimized a board’s right to act within the building without judicial interference.

In the lawsuit, the defendant said that Mr. Glass had given him oral approval for the move. Mr. Glass, however, wants everyone to know that he gives oral approval for nothing. All his recommendations are in reports, neatly and swiftly typed on his electric I.B.M. typewriter. And if every tenant moved the risers, he observes, the systems would be far less efficient.

Occasionally, however, co-ops choose not to heed Mr. Glass’s advice.

There was the time when a television personality bought a floor-through apartment in a prewar building and proposed converting it into a one-bedroom by changing all the additional bedrooms into bathrooms or walk-in closets. Mr. Glass worried that it would hurt resale values, but the co-op let it go, saying the next owner would just change it back at his or her expense.

Mr. Glass shrugs it off. After years of watching the wealthy flood Manhattan and do extensive renovations, no excess surprises him.

He has seen it all: the multimillion-dollar gut renovation that spread across three years. The couple who bought on Fifth Avenue facing the park and then requested so many plantings on a terrace that it blocked their views. A sudden insistence on $30,000 French stoves that require more ventilation than can be reasonably accommodated. He sighs, “Odds are no one will really cook on them anyway.”

For the record, Mr. Glass lived in a rental most of his life. Only recently did he buy into a co-op, in Union Square. But he has no plans to get involved with its decision making.

Still, perhaps no one knows the interior life of co-ops better than he.

Mr. Glass grew up in the Bronx, the son of an architect. His father, M. Milton Glass, was prominent in city planning and a partner in the architecture firm of Meyer, Whittlesey & Glass, which designed Butterfield House on 12th Street and 220 Central Park South, among others. He was always intrigued by the family business and received a five-year degree in architecture from Cornell University in 1957.

He meant to get into design, of course. But his real business, that of reviewing others’ work, developed in the 1960s. It came about almost by accident when a client called his father to resolve a dispute. He sent Elliott, and the son began being called in to write reports.

The business built slowly in the 1970s and then exploded with the boom in converting rentals into co-ops in the 1980s. Now, Mr. Glass says, even though his services run $350 an hour, he has more work then he can handle.

He could hire an assistant, but it is not his style.

He is alone in the office and prefers it that way. Communications can be vexing. “If I had a computer,” he said, “they’d bombard me with e-mail.” He means co-op shareholders.

They find him anyway, through the telephone, although they are not supposed to contact him directly.

Usually they are calling, he said, because their designer didn’t warn them that they would have to file with the New York City Buildings Department, a process that is not only expensive but frustratingly time-consuming.

“They are angry; they are always needing to move, their wives eight and a half months pregnant,” he said.

He is understanding but also understandably unmoved.

“Just recently I got a call from a guy who was angry because he insisted a neighbor did the same amount of work and didn’t have to get approval.” he said. “But I looked it up and sure enough the neighbor had done a lot of work, but he hadn’t moved any walls so he didn’t need approval.”

Mr. Glass shakes his head.

So what did the angry guy do? “Nothing he could do,” Mr. Glass said. “When you are right, you are right.”

Photographs by Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times

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