Tenant holds out in 1830s building as ‘sexy’ projects go up around him


By Skye H. McFarlane

Jim Teschner may be a landscape artist, but the bleak scenery outside his apartment building at 213 Pearl St. — and the stressful memories it evokes — have led him to put away the paintbrush.

“It’s been too traumatic. I haven’t painted,” Teschner, who works a day job at Martha Stewart Living, said. “This whole thing has been excruciatingly painful.”

The pain and the trauma stem from Teschner’s fight, along with fellow artist and 213 Pearl tenant Colette Justine, to retain their rent-stabilized lofts in a historic but un-landmarked old warehouse in the Financial District. The battle has involved landlords, developers, construction crews, a utility company, repeated trips to housing court and an intervention by Councilmember Alan Gerson’s office.

Along the way, the tenants have endured homelessness, a lack of heat and the fear that the façade of their building might crumble onto the sidewalk below. Yet, Teschner, whose place for the moment is secure, remains determined to stay at 213 Pearl St. for as long as he is able.

To the outside observer, the obvious question is, “Why?”

Constructed in the early 1830s, 213 Pearl St. is a humble five-story relic from the days when Pearl St. was a thriving corridor of mercantile trade, connecting the financiers of Wall St. to the shippers of the Seaport. The building’s russet, handmade brick slopes unevenly and a ground-to-roof crack scars its northern wall. The building stands alone on the block bounded by Maiden Lane, Pearl, Gold and Platt Sts., surrounded by construction sites. Teschner’s building is the only sliver of land on the block that is not owned by the Rockrose Development Corporation. Rockrose has razed the rest of the block and constructed a 51-story luxury residential building at 2 Gold St. Another residential building and a hotel are in the works, meaning more years of digging, pile driving and drills. Three other tenants have already left the building, but Teschner, who has lived in his apartment since 1984, has vowed to stick it out.

“I would never be able to reproduce this kind of studio in the city. If I lose this space, my days in New York are probably over,” Teschner said. “Do I, as a person in my 50s, want to go back and have roommates? I don’t think so.”

Jon McMillan, Rockrose’s director of planning, readily admits that the company had attempted to acquire 213 Pearl St. multiple times since it first began developing the block. The site would have given the developers full control of the block, as well as another 24,000 feet of air rights under the current zoning. But now, McMillan says, Rockrose is no longer interested.

“It’s difficult because the building has residential tenants in it and that can be very messy,” McMillan said. “At this point it’s too late. We’ve sort of planned around it. It’s not a totally bad thing. It adds to what’s left of the historic character on Pearl St.”

The street’s 1830s warehouses, which supplanted earlier Dutch-era homes, were part of Lower Manhattan’s conversion into a commercial district. Ironically, the buildings were some of the first to return to residential use in the 20th century, as artists seized upon the large loft spaces and low rents. With rent stabilization, Teschner pays less than $700 per month for an 800 square foot space. By contrast, market-rate studios at 2 Gold St., with about 500 square feet of space, start at $1,835 per month.

Although both Teschner and Justine have a long history of disputes with the 213 Pearl St. landlords, mostly involving rent and building repairs, the biggest threat to Teschner’s artist loft life emerged in 1995, when Rockrose began buying up property on the block, including the 1830s warehouses at 211 and 215 Pearl St.

In 2003, despite protest from neighbors and historical preservation groups, Rockrose took down 211 Pearl St., leaving just its façade intact and leading to fears that 213 Pearl might suffer a similar fate. Although 213’s tenants are largely protected by rent stabilization laws, the owner could legally evict them at the end of a lease term if the building was going to be demolished. An acrimonious 2003 letter from then-landlord Drew Karch made Teschner afraid that the owners planned to do just that.

“Jim, you must understand that you will not be living at 213 Pearl St. for the rest of your life,” the letter said. “The future holds one of two possibilities. We keep the building and I convert the 5th floor for my daughter/family to use or I sell it to Rockrose and the building is demolished.”

As it turned out, the landlord died and his wife Diane took over the building. The fifth floor, where Teschner resides, was never converted and the building was never sold. But 213 Pearl St.’s problems were only beginning. In 2006, the demolition of 215 Pearl St. next door began causing problems for the historic structure and its residents. On Aug. 29, 2006, the Rockrose project was issued a violation for unsafe demolition and on Oct. 13, residents discovered the five-story crack in 213’s façade.

Though Rockrose denies that its demolition caused the crack (they say it was a pre-existing condition), the company was issued another violation for unsafe demolition and ordered to make repairs to the structure. In the meantime, the Department of Buildings deemed the building unsafe for habitation. Teschner came home to a vacate order on his door. He grabbed a few belongings and his cat, Peuti, and left, wondering if he would ever see his paintings again.

Rockrose and the city completed emergency repairs to shore up 213’s façade, and on Nov. 20, the D.O.B. partially lifted its vacate order. More repairs are still needed to make the first-floor restaurant, Pancho Magico, safe to reopen. But even with the D.O.B.’s vote of confidence, owner Diane Karch believed that the building was unsafe. According to court documents and emails obtained by Downtown Express, Karch was afraid that her insurance would not cover her if she allowed her tenants to reoccupy the building in its compromised condition. She locked the tenants out and instructed them to look for new living arrangements. Karch did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

Convinced that they had a legal right to reenter their homes, Teschner and Justine hired lawyers and exercised what Teschner’s attorney, Dan Alterman, called “legal self-help” (court documents show that the tenants changed the locks and let themselves back into the building).

After weeks of holing up with friends, Teschner was relieved to be home. However, due to lingering safety issues, heat and hot water service did not return with him. Fortunately the weather in December was mild because it took another month, a judge’s order and multiple phone calls from Councilmember Gerson’s office to get Karch and Con Edison to restore steam to the building. On Dec. 22, 213 Pearl St. finally regained its heat and hot water.

“Con Ed and the Scroogey landlord were convinced to restore this essential service so our clients had heat for Christmas,” said Alterman.

Despite the victory, the legal battle drags on. A petition protesting the original lockout is still pending in housing court and the tenants have motioned to have their attorneys’ fees paid by Karch.

As for the rest of the block’s future, instead of buying 213 Pearl St., Rockrose now plans to build around it. McMillan said in the next few months, Rockrose will be announcing a “very sexy” deal to build a hotel on the north side of the block. There will also be a residential building. The two projects will be a combined 400,000 square feet and will be considerably smaller than Rockrose’s Gold St. building.

McMillan said 213 Pearl would complement both the preserved façade of 211 Pearl, which will become part of the new residential building, and the reconstructed façade of 215 Pearl, which will be incorporated into the hotel. This will give the block historic continuity, he said, and gives Rockrose an incentive to monitor its construction carefully so as not to damage 213.

“It makes sense for everybody to be concerned that what happens on the site doesn’t do future damage to 213 Pearl,” McMillan said.

Still, Jim Teschner will worry, and wait, for the day when he can wake up knowing that his building and his tenancy are safe.

“Obviously I’m enormously relieved, but I’m also quite skeptical,” Teschner said of Rockrose’s pledges. “It’s great that the building is going to stay, but I’m concerned. Will the building survive the building of two towers on either side? What will they do to protect the building and our well being?”