In most places, greenhouses are structures used to grow plants. In New York City, they’re used to grow apartments.
From around the late ’60s through the early ’90s, many apartment dwellers fortunate enough to have a balcony or terrace put it under glass to make their patch of outdoor space habitable all year long.
They called the enclosed area a “temporary structure” (though dismantling it really wasn’t part of the plan) to exploit a building code loophole, closed several years ago, that didn’t count such an addition when calculating floor area ratio, a figure that helps determine how big a building can be. And code enforcement is about to get more rigorous.
The label “greenhouse” was as misleading as the label “temporary structure.”
“People may have put their pot plants there or a potted plant there, but the point was really to create more indoor space,” said Howard L. Zimmerman, an architect who specializes in exterior facade restoration. He estimates that there are thousands of these greenhouses or, as the Department of Buildingscalls them, sunrooms, in New York City.
“For years, architects were putting these glass enclosures on setbacks, knocking down walls to incorporate them into the existing unit and really abusing the building codes,” Mr. Zimmerman said.
The structures needed to be waterproofed and installed properly, registered with the buildings department and issued permits as permanent structures. Few were. As supposed temporary structures they were not supposed to have heating or cooling systems. Many did.
These lapses have long been easy to overlook because of a greenhouse’s undeniable wow factor, especially in the case of an ornate high-end model with curved metal and glass and a $500,000 price tag. The low end: $10,000.
Apartments with glass enclosures command a premium of $25,000 to $50,000, according to Gina Kuhlenkamp, an associate broker with Coldwell Banker Bellmarc, who has sold several apartments with greenhouses atTurtle Bay Towers where, atypically, they were part of the developer’s original design and in full compliance with all the appropriate city departments.
“Greenhouses can be gorgeous and sexy and a great addition to an apartment,” said Ronni Arougheti Hart, a managing director of Terra Holdings, the parent company of Halstead Property. “A balcony or terrace is something you can only use a couple of months a year. But when it’s enclosed it can be a den or a bedroom. You have additional square footage that’s weatherproof, and an outside feel without the soot and the noise.
“But,” Ms. Hart continued, “if something goes wrong, it can open a Pandora’s box.”
The concern about something going wrong may explain a new rule by the buildings department that will be incorporated into facade inspections starting in 2015: An additional heated or cooled space made by a permanent balcony or terrace enclosure will be considered noncompliant if it doesn’t have a permit. “Under certain circumstances the structure would be required to be dismantled,” said Alexander Schnell, a spokesman for the buildings department.
Some might say that the rule is late in coming. Many greenhouses in the city, often installed without a permit or under the guise of “temporary structure,” are showing their age; some are leaking water into neighboring apartments, causing many headaches and many dollars in damage. Now come the disputes about who’s to blame and who’s to pay.
“Sometimes the greenhouses were put up with co-op board approval and sometimes without board approval, and sometimes no one can tell if there was or wasn’t approval, because many years have elapsed and the person who put in the greenhouse was several sellers ago,” said Steven D. Sladkus, a real estate lawyer at Wolf Haldenstein Adler Freeman & Herz.
The real problem, of course, is when a shareholder doesn’t know a greenhouse wasn’t approved, doesn’t know a greenhouse wasn’t constructed or installed properly, and suddenly the neighboring units are under water. Mr. Sladkus represents an Upper West Side building that has just such a situation. “The shareholder didn’t install the greenhouse and now she’s saying, ‘Co-op, it’s your problem.’ ” Mr. Sladkus said. “And the co-op is saying, ‘No, it’s your problem.’ ”
A co-op board on Sutton Place is battling two shareholders who built greenhouses on the building’s parapet walls. “The city’s buildings department has found them to be illegal in both structure and material, and we’ve been issued a violation,” said Stan Bell, the president of the co-op board, adding that the greenhouses have caused leaks and damage to the bricks. “We’ve attempted to negotiate, but the shareholders don’t want to take them down,” he said. “If we have to go to litigation, it will take several years and it will be very expensive. I’m concerned that it will affect sales in the building.”
Mr. Zimmerman recently consulted with a co-op where, years ago, a shareholder bought a penthouse apartment with a rooftop greenhouse from a well-known playwright. He wrote one of his works in that very greenhouse, he told the starstruck buyer.
“It’s a debate whether the structure is legal,” Mr. Zimmerman said. “We haven’t been able to find any filings.”
Now, the greenhouse is obstructing access to an area of the building that needs attention. The shareholder, he said, has agreed to pay for the additional cost of working over and around the enclosure.
Paying for expensive repairs may be just the beginning for shareholders who are deemed liable. Mr. Zimmerman said: “Those greenhouses that they paid a premium for when they bought their apartments, in some instances, co-op boards are telling them, ‘This was never filed with the buildings department. This is an illegal structure. Not only are we going to make you take it down, but you’re not going to put it back up because the D.O.B. isn’t going to grandfather something that wasn’t legal to begin with.’ ”
There is considerable potential for adding to the bad feelings between boards and greenhouse-owning shareholders. “If a co-op has central heating and air-conditioning and it’s included in the maintenance, now you have the additional greenhouse space that is drawing on the building’s resources,” said Ms. Hart of Terra Holdings. “Every other unit owner is subsidizing it.”
Should a co-op issue more shares? Should greenhouse owners pay more maintenance because they’ve increased the footprint of their apartment?
Then there’s the issue of floor area ratio. “If a building is allowed 10,000 square feet of buildable square footage, and you build 9,000 square feet of brick and mortar and 1,000 feet of greenhouses, that’s fine,” Mr. Zimmerman said. “The building is within its zoning envelope.”
But the building could have had its own plans for the extra space. “Those greenhouses could keep a board from building a facility like a gym that all the residents could enjoy,” Mr. Sladkus said.
Many co-ops are paying the price for an earlier anything-goes mindset. “In the ’70s co-op boards weren’t as sophisticated or vigilant as they are today,” Ms. Hart said.
“Now, when someone comes to them asking about installing a greenhouse, they know immediately to say no.”