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Lot-Line Window? Keep Your Fingers Crossed

If someone decides to build on an empty lot or low-rise building next door, you’ll have to brick up that window and say goodbye to your view.


By Sara Clemence


Published: Aug. 31, 2018


When Jason Biggs and Jenny Mollen bought their TriBeCa loft in 2013, they weren’t concerned that the living room windows were on the side of the building that bordered the adjoining property. In fact, they were perfectly positioned to offer views of the Hudson River over the parking lot next door.

Then the parking lot owners got bought out.

Related Companies began construction on a 10-story luxury rental building on the site and, within a year, the couple’s wide shot of the river became a close-up of a wall. In 2017, according to public records, the couple, who are both actors, sold the home for just a sliver above the $2.55 million they originally paid — even though TriBeCa prices had soared during the years they owned it.

“I wasn’t even sure if we were going to be able to sell it,” said Frances Katzen, who represented the pair with fellow Douglas Elliman broker Maggie Zaharoiu. “It was definitely a little bit stressful.”

Mr. Biggs and Ms. Mollen, who is also an author, were the unwitting owners of lot-line windows — the technical term for windows that lie on the invisible boundary between two properties. If that sounds like an obscure real estate concept, you’re probably not one of the countless New Yorkers who have lost views, light, air and entire windows when something new popped up next door.

“Lot line is no joke,” Ms. Katzen said.

Most New Yorkers understand that their views will change, for better or worse, over time. But lot-line windows are by definition temporary, allowed to exist and provide light and a view, on the condition that the next door neighbor doesn’t want a new building or addition.

Owning or renting a property with a lot-line window means living in limbo. It also means that sales transactions can be more complicated and that what is happening next door can have a big effect on your property’s value.

The windows appear mostly in older buildings that were originally erected next to empty lots or lower structures, said Tom Fariello, first deputy commissioner for the New York City Department of Buildings. Some newer buildings will put them in and submit a document filed with the deed so that anyone, including future potential buyers, can know that if something is built next door, the windows will have to be blocked up.

And occasionally, residents will install one-off lot-line windows, which explains some of the odd walls that appear across the city, studded with one or two seemingly random openings.

Louise Asher and her husband added one of these windows to the side of their townhouse in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn. When they had their second child, they decided to expand their apartment from the third floor to include part of the second floor, and move their kitchen downstairs.

“These buildings just have the light in the front and the back, and we had the space, so we thought it would be nice to have a window in the kitchen,” she said.

Their lot-line window looks onto Our Lady’s Field, a community sports field owned by the nearby Holy Name of Jesus Roman Catholic Church. “Of course, that won’t stop them from selling the field and building a building,” Ms. Asher said.

While lot-line windows may be legal, they can’t be counted for light and air, because they might not be there tomorrow, Mr. Fariello said. A living room or bedroom with lot-line windows must also have legitimate windows elsewhere to be considered legally habitable space.

There are cases that are grandfathered in, said Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. “Going back to the late 19th century, it was perfectly legal to build bedrooms that had no windows whatsoever,” he said. Later laws required windows, but they could open onto a small air shaft that provided very little light or air. Buildings that predate modern regulations may be permitted to have bedrooms whose windows have very little clearance, he said.

But the city’s rules about windows aren’t arbitrary. “This is a way of controlling fire moving from one place to another,” said Keith Wen, a technical adviser for the Department of Buildings. When new construction comes within three feet of a lot-line window, the window has to be made to behave like a regular wall. Fire-resistant windows are an option, but it is often cheaper to fill the openings with brick, masonry or other suitable materials.

Just how temporary a lot-line window is depends largely on what is next door, said Jonathan J. Miller, president of the real estate appraisal firm Miller Samuel. “If you’re in an apartment on a floor high enough to have a nice view and there’s a landmark church next door, then in your lifetime you’re probably not going to lose that view,” he said. “If there’s a gas station or a low-rise building that’s old and derelict, the pendulum swings in the other direction.”

Broader market forces also have an effect. In boom times, empty lots are more likely to be filled, and smaller, shabbier buildings bought and replaced. In the current market, chances are dwindling that lots and low-rises will stay that way.

According to the New York Building Congress, an industry association, the city has been in the midst of a construction boom of a magnitude likely not seen since the early 1970s. Though the Department of Buildings doesn’t track the number of lot-line windows, Mr. Wen said he believed Manhattan residents were most likely to be affected. “But nowadays Downtown Brooklyn as well,” he said. And “eventually, some areas in Queens where you start to have taller buildings.”

Mithun Islam, an executive vice president at Outsource Consultants, which specializes in expediting building permits in New York, said numbers were on the rise. In the last 10 years, he estimated, about 20 percent of buildings with lot-line windows have been affected by construction, an uptick from prior years.

Anecdotes provide perspective on the pervasiveness of lot-line windows — and there are a lot of anecdotes.

In 2016, owners on the south side of the pricey Silk Building, on East 4th Street, had their windows blocked by the luxury condominiums built on what had been a flea market. In the East Village, a celebrity buyer walked away from a deal on a penthouse apartment that Ms. Katzen had listed when construction began on an adjoining hotel, she said.

On the Upper West Side, many renters at West River House, whose 22 stories replaced the main sanctuary of All Angels’ Church in the early 1980s, were startled when the modest retail space next door was razed for a condominium building designed by Robert A.M. Stern.

Leslie Bottrell, a 43-year-old physician, moved into West River House with her husband and two children in 2016. Their real estate broker had been thorough, Dr. Bottrell said, so they knew that the building next door was marked for demolition. “But it could be years from now, whatever. It was zoned for good schools. So we took it,” she said. Their 20th-floor apartment had views on three sides, including a glimpse of Central Park to the east.

Within a year, blasting had begun. When their lease came up for renewal, the family tried to negotiate with the landlord. “There was heavy, heavy construction,” she said. “Noise. We said to them, ‘We are likely to lose our view. How about a rent reduction to reflect that?’ They said, ‘We don’t do that.’”

They returned from Christmas vacation to find that the windows in their kitchen and master bathroom had been blocked with plywood, which was later covered by drywall. In the bathroom, the lack of ventilation soon triggered mold growth, Dr. Bottrell said. The family felt the building had botched the repairs and recently moved out. A representative for the building owners declined to comment.

Though Dr. Bottrell’s family knew they had a lot-line window, many other residents are — so to speak — in the dark. One way to know if your view is in limbo: The window glass is crosshatched with wire that prevents it from shattering in a fire.

“The chicken wire is one of those things that screams temporary,” Mr. Miller said. “The question becomes, what does temporary mean?”

The answer can have significant ramifications. Sellers might have to lower expectations; buyers or renters might have more leverage to bargain. “A corner apartment with a lot-line window on one side — does it behave like a corner apartment?” Mr. Miller said. “In most cases it doesn’t; it’s something less.”

A buyer or renter shouldn’t take at face value any assurances about the view from landlords, sellers or brokers, assuming they even make them. Sellers have no obligation to point out that a property has lot-line windows, said Jamie Heiberger Harrison, a real estate attorney. Developers, however, do: They’re required to disclose them in the “special risks” section of an offering plan.

“It’s part of the due diligence, finding this out,” Ms. Heiberger Harrison said. That might involve contacting an architect to learn about local zoning restrictions, hiring a title company to find out who owns various rights and examining public records.

“We can only work with the information that’s available current-day,” she said. “I would never make a guarantee to somebody about the future.”

On the flip side, not all lot-line views are destined to disappear. “It’s not necessarily a bad thing as long as you’re aware of what it is and what it isn’t,” said Ms. Katzen, who once sold a penthouse loft that had lot-line windows on one side. “The land next door was so narrow that it was very unlikely a developer would build it up. There’s no value there.”

Either way, lot-line windows come with zero rights.

“There is a somewhat commonly held misconception that lot-line windows are in some way protected,” said Mr. Berman, of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. But even in a landmark district, he noted, “it doesn’t mean that nothing can be built under any circumstances.”

The neighbors have no obligation to build around lot-line windows or to pay for any changes to your side of the line.

The exception is when the owner of a lot-line window has the cash and foresight to make a deal. Obtaining a so-called light-and-air easement from the property next door prevents anyone who owns the land from obstructing your view. Then “you can have the windows forever,” said Mr. Wen, of the Department of Buildings.

Sanae Robinson Guerin wishes she had taken action 20 years ago. Ms. Robinson Guerin, a creative director, lives in “an amazing little jewel of an apartment” in the West Village, which she shared with her husband before he died. “When I moved to New York, the corner had a parking lot and an auto-body shop, or some other low-lying building,” she said. “You’re kind of are aware that this is New York, real estate is incredibly precious, and that probably won’t be there forever. But then you just put it out of your mind.”

The building wrapped around the corner lot, giving Ms. Robinson Guerin’s sixth-floor apartment views of Perry Street to the south and the Hudson River over the parking lot to the west. A development team that included Richard Born, Ira Drukier and Charles Blaichman bought the lot and commissioned Richard Meier to design what would become 173 Perry Street, which opened in 2002. The construction noise made plates of food dance on the table, Ms. Robinson Guerin said. And eventually cinder blocks replaced the view from one of her bedroom windows.

“You have to get used to the lack of ventilation, the lack of light in the room,” she said. “For a while it was like, ‘This is really going to change my life.’”

The developers offered to fix up Ms. Robinson Guerin’s side of the window by plastering it over or turning it into a built-in bookcase. She opted for the former, although she later had shelves put in. She misses her view, but the Meier building “has acted as a sound buffer,” Ms. Robinson Guerin said. “There’s sort of a silver lining in that.”

Erik Wicker, a 42-year-old freelance graphic designer, also discovered some upsides to having a lot-line window blotted out. When he moved into his one-bedroom walk-up in Astoria, Queens, five years ago, one of the two empty lots nearby was slated for a new building. “The broker didn’t mention it at all,” Mr. Wicker said, and “I didn’t ask.”

Several months later, a neighboring mosque began building on the land. After years of stop-and-start construction, the structure covers one of Mr. Wicker’s three bedroom windows, which used to look out on Steinway Street. “Now I’m facing the wall of their building, which is a very distinctive pink,” he said.

Still, the room no longer overheats in the afternoon sun, and there is less noise from Steinway Street.

And Mr. Wicker is the rare person who appreciated the prospect of a dimmer life. In his 20s, he had Ramsay Hunt syndrome, a form of shingles that left him with mild nerve damage and makes him sensitive to light.

“I still get daylight,” he said cheerfully, of the room. “It’s not a blackout effect or anything. I still have houseplants.”


Click here to read the aricle at the New York Times.

Published on

Aug 31, 2018 by New York Building Congress