The besieged architect Robert Scarano designed thousands of apartments. What do you do if you bought one?
By S.Jhoanna Robledo
01- Robert M. Scarano Jr. was accused of making false or misleading statements about plans for an L-shape lot at Manhattan Avenue and Freeman Street to build “bigger structures.”
02- One of the buildings by Mr. Scarano, at 57-59 Maspeth Avenue, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, dwarfs its neighbors.
03- Some Scarano buildings, like 78 Ten Eyck Street, have mezzanines. Whether they count in the buildings’ size is disputed.
04- Two other Scarano buildings, at 63 and 69 Stagg Street in Brooklyn, also raised the mezzanine issue.
Brooklyn would look very different today without Robert Scarano. The architect of hundreds of buildings, Scarano was incredibly prolific during the aughts building boom, especially in Williamsburg. He became known as a developer’s best partner, a man who could squeeze every salable square foot onto a lot. He’s also been widely criticized for his blocky, bulky designs, creative parsing of the building code to get approval for uncommonly large projects, and working with developers who run shoddy construction sites. To a certain kind of context-worshipping New Yorker, Scarano represents everything that’s wrong with our architectural culture.
And now he’s cooked. Earlier this month, the City Department of Buildings barred Scarano from filing permits and plans because he “repeatedly submitted false documents in an attempt to circumvent the law.” Suddenly, the neighbors aren’t the only ones wringing their hands: New Yorkers who’ve bought Scarano apartments—particularly those angling to sell—are grappling with his downfall.
One East Williamsburger who has had her ceiling replastered is fatalistic. “Until the leaks are fixed, I can’t worry about selling this place,” she says. (She and others interviewed for this story requested anonymity for fear of scaring off buyers.) Another North Brooklyn owner says the ductwork in her apartment’s HVAC system doesn’t meet code and adds that the six-story building has no wheelchair access. Others single out “sweaty” windows—possibly a sign of poor insulation—and misrouted cables. Attorney Adam Leitman Bailey, who represents disgruntled owners at eight Scarano projects, says some clients had bedrooms that didn’t meet city specifications and therefore were called closets. When your two-bedroom abruptly becomes reclassified as a one-bedroom, the resale value will likely be downsized as well.
Is it right to blame Scarano for all this? It depends on the building. Developers and contractors are equally accountable for shoddy workmanship. One owner (who is, for the record, an architect) notes that she can’t scapegoat Scarano for plumbing woes and cheap door handles. “Sometimes the owner puts the architect in a limited role,” she explains. (A DoB spokesperson recommends that anyone considering a Scarano condo—or any new construction, for that matter—hire an engineer or architect to perform structural due diligence.)
One could argue that Scarano’s projects have been scrutinized so closely that they simply can’t be as bad as their reputation. After he surrendered his right to self-certify—that is, perform his own code and safety inspections—in 2006, the city audited 286 self-certified Scarano jobs and has reviewed another 309 since then. Scarano’s representative, Linda Alexander, says that the firm “is pursuing all avenues available to reverse the erroneous rulings.” Some residents even love his spaces: One artist says her old apartment at 1037 Manhattan Avenue, which the DoB says doesn’t meet zoning regulations, had wonderful high ceilings and huge windows. (She moved only after her rent was hiked.)
If there’s a silver lining for those owners, it’s this: Controversy fades. A scandal can “appear [to have] a devastating impact on value,” notes appraiser Jonathan Miller. “But once it’s resolved, people have other things to worry about. ”
New York City Real Estate – What Do You Do If You Bought One of Robert Scarano’s Apartments? –
Controvery- Building codes and zoning
Under the New York City system of zoning, buildings are regulated for things such as height, floor area, setbacks, and number of dwelling units. These regulations vary by neighborhood and street.
Many of the buildings designed by Scarano’s firm are instantly recognizable for being much larger than neighboring buildings. This is often due to the double-height spaces and mezzanine levels commonly used on his residential projects to maximize building height, floor area, and lot coverage. Under the New York City building codes, mezzanines (defined in part as spaces with ceiling heights of less than five feet) are not included when calculating the square footage of a building, but it has been alleged that many of Scarano’s building plans classified habitable space as mezzanines.
In February 2006, the Department of Buildings charged Scarano with “violating zoning or building codes on 25 projects in Brooklyn, including several cases in which it alleged that new buildings he designed were larger than they should have been.”
Speaking with a reporter in April 2006, Scarano defended himself, saying:
“If you’re allowed 60 percent lot coverage and 55 feet (17 m) in height and the allowable floor area is a 2.0 FAR and that gives you three-and-a-half floors, what do you do with the extra height? We pushed that into the living spaces, creating double-height units with mezzanines. And you want that space in the living room and dining room and maybe the main bedroom, but not in the other rooms (kitchens, baths, home office etc). And we were allowed to exclude the mezzanines from the floor area based on memorandums that were circulating in the 1980s.”
With the publicity and increased scrutiny, the City required modifications to several of his buildings before granting the final Certificates of Occupancy.
As of August 2007, approximately 20% of Scarano-designed projects had City-imposed stop work orders. The city-wide average at the time was 2.2%.
05- 52 East 4th Street, also known as 351-353 Bowery, is a commercial and residential condominium designed by Robert Scarano which was completed in 2009. The residential tower stands set back from the Bowery between 3rd and 4th Streets, and has a private entrance/driveway on 4th Street.
06- Scarano Architects office at 110 York Street in Brooklyn. Begun in Staten Island in 1985, Scarano Architects PLLC today has a staff of about 50, including designers from Brazil, Bulgaria, Colombia, Israel, Russia and Ukraine. Based in DUMBO, Brooklyn, their office adjacent to the Manhattan Bridge features a glass and steel addition atop a hundred-year-old building.
07- 333 Carrol Street (2006–present) – now called the “Hell Building” by critics, owner Isaac Fischman hired Scarano to design an addition and renovation to convert this 19th century building in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn into luxury condominiums. Construction has been halted three times, most recently March 2008, after the Building Department determined that “…Scarano had inaccurately claimed the building was zoned to allow for the additional stories.” Scarano was removed from the project in January 2008; the building remains unfinished.
08- “Finger Building” – 144 North 8th Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
09- “Manhattan Park Condos”, 297 Driggs Ave., Brooklyn.
10- 199 Humboldt St. Brooklyn.
11- “The Phoenix”, 130-132 Scholes St., Brooklyn.
12- 406 Lorimer St., Brooklyn.
Controversial Architect Is Barred by City
By KAREEM FAHIM
Robert M. Scarano Jr., a Brooklyn architect who has long been criticized by community groups for flouting zoning laws, was barred by the Department of Buildings on Wednesday from filing construction plans — threatening, at least temporarily, his ability to work as an architect in the city.
The order, which applies both to pending applications that Mr. Scarano has before the Buildings Department and to any new ones he might want to file, came after a scathing recommendation by an administrative law judge, who found that he had made numerous false statements about three properties in Brooklyn.
The judge, Joan R. Salzman, accused Mr. Scarano of “deliberately overbuilding” and said some of his filings were “so deceptive that they call to mind out-and-out fraud.”
“False filings lead to chaos,” she wrote. Mr. Scarano, the fourth architect to be barred from submitting documents under a 2007 state law, did not return calls seeking comment. A spokeswoman, Linda Alexander, said in a statement that his company, Scarano Architect PLLC, “is pursing all avenues available to reverse the erroneous rulings that were issued today.”
Mr. Scarano’s lawyer, Raymond T. Mellon, said he would most likely challenge the constitutionality of the 2007 law, which authorizes the city to bar licensed architects.
In the building boom of the last decade, Mr. Scarano emerged as one of Brooklyn’s more prolific and controversial architects, a favored choice of developers looking to capitalize on rising real estate values but the scourge of many community groups, who complained that his buildings dwarfed the structures around them, blocking views and sunlight. Now, city officials have found that they also often dwarfed the plans Mr. Scarano filed to get them built.
“Mr. Scarano repeatedly submitted false documents in an attempt to circumvent the law and have illegal buildings approved,” the buildings commissioner, Robert D. LiMandri, said. “Licensed professionals must understand they have an obligation to follow the law so the safety and quality of life of our neighborhoods are not compromised.”
The current charges grew out of a 2008 inquiry by the city’s Department of Investigation and the Buildings Department. In 2006, the city brought charges against Mr. Scarano claiming that he violated zoning rules or building codes in the design of more than two dozen apartment buildings, many in Williamsburg, and also that he failed to guarantee safe conditions at a building site on Ocean Parkway where a worker was killed in a wall collapse. The charges were settled.
The city’s public advocate, Bill de Blasio, who opposed projects that Mr. Scarano designed in Carroll Gardens when Mr. De Blasio represented the neighborhood in the City Council, called the decision gratifying. He seemed to always have nine lives and get away with it.” Mr. De Blasio said.
The implications for Mr. Scarano’s firm and its current projects were not immediately clear; another licensed architect in the office could, in theory, submit the firm’s applications and building plans. The firm’s Web site says it handles 300 projects a year. Mr. Scarano has said that 99 percent of his work was in New York City.
Despite complaints about dozens of his projects in recent years, Mr. Scarano was ultimately brought down by his work on just three buildings, including one project, at 145 Snediker Street in East New York, where the issue was a lamppost.
Judge Salzman found that Mr. Scarano took pictures that falsely gave the impression that a lamppost was farther away from a driveway than it actually was.
“I find that the only purpose of respondent’s peculiar photographs was to try to elicit a final construction approval to which respondent’s client was in no way entitled,” she wrote, “and, in short, to deceive the department, or, in common parlance, to ‘put one over’ on the department, to ‘pull a fast one.’ ”
Mr. Scarano was also cited for a raft of false or misleading statements in plans he submitted for an L-shape lot at Freeman Street and Manhattan Avenue in Greenpoint, in order to build bigger structures than were permitted. “These were not inadvertent errors,” the judge wrote. “Respondent knew what he was doing.”
Amid controversy, Scarano wisecracks and mulls retirement
By Amy Tennery
Retirement was on Robert Scarano’s mind tonight at the 90 North 5th Street condominium party, a mixer for Brooklyn’s real estate-inclined, for a building his firm designed.
Just hours after news broke that a judge had blocked Scarano, a Brooklyn architecture mainstay, from filing future construction plans to the Department of Buildings, Scarano was wisecracking about the situation and hinting that he may quit the business.
“What should I do? What do you think I should do?” Scarano asked this reporter. “Maybe I’m headed for retirement… it’s good to retire. Plenty of people would be happy.”
But Scarano wasn’t all jokes this evening at the Williamsburg building party to showcase model units. When asked about 145 Snediker Street, where an out of place lamppost was allegedly named in the complaints against him, Scarano said that he felt that complaint — and the overall criticism against him — was out of line.
“Kind of petty, right?” Scarano said. “It’s terrible. You can’t make light of that… I don’t think [the ruling] was just.”
But, regardless of his assertions, Scarano has long been a target of DOB scrutiny. Three construction workers died at projects he designed in 2005 and 2006 and DOB has turned a keen eye on Scarano’s plans over the last near-decade.
While he hasn’t yet decided whether to challenge the judge’s ruling blocking him from filing plans, Scarano said that a legal entanglement “would be expensive” and that “maybe [he'd] rather go eat out at restaurants.”
Even so, David Maundrell, president of aptsandlofts.com, which is marketing 90 North 5th Street, which recently garnered Federal Housing Administration financing approval, said he’s not too concerned about how the ensuing negative press will affect sales.
“We understand any situation with Bob [Scarano] can affect us… it is what it is,” Maundrell said, noting that the DOB long ago approved plans for 90 North 5th Street, which has not been named in the Scarano controversy. “For as many people who don’t like his designs there [are] 10 times as many who do.”
Not long ago, Scarano was credited as a major influence on the Brooklyn landscape, with hundreds of successful residential projects completed in the borough.
“His buildings were hot sellers,” Maundrell said.