The Belnord is a powerfully built limestone rental building that occupies an entire city block on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Many windows are the width of a grown woman’s wingspan. The outer walls, as if built for a fortress, are nearly a foot thick. And the building has a 22,000-square-foot interior courtyard sprouting with well-manicured trees. Some of its apartments ask for $35,000, even $45,000, a month.
Yet, in the same building, there are dozens of people living in rent-controlled or rent-stabilized apartments, and there is at least one tenant who pays no rent at all. In exchange, that longtime resident gave up a rent-controlled apartment elsewhere in the building that had nearly a dozen rooms.
“I remember buying a tenant out early on who was paying $275 a month for a 4,000-square-foot apartment,” said Gary Barnett, who purchased the landmark building in 1994. “So I bought him a house in the suburbs.”
The Belnord is a building of extremes, and it bears the distinction of having one of the most fraught real estate histories in all of New York City. It has seen a rent strike that touched three decades, a troubled $375 million mortgage and a most unusual agreement through which several dozen tenants voluntarily bowed out of rent regulation. That agreement is now having its day in court.
“I was living in Belgium; I had Belgian investors,” said Mr. Barnett, president of Extell, now one of the city’s most powerful development companies. “I didn’t know any better, so I bought it.”
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“The entire building, which has more than 200 apartments, cost Gary Barnett only $15 million. But it also came with an extraordinary menagerie of physical problems — a crumbling roof; enormous leaks; unreliable heat; unreliable hot water; unreliable water, period — and some 200 open court cases.”