Tenant or Squatter? The Battle Over Tribeca Apartment on Leonard St.

The city vacated 17 Leonard Street, the three-story building that stands next to a nine-story residential project under construction, after dangerously widening cracks were discovered in December. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Sep. 22, 2014

They’re fighting over the most fragile building in Tribeca.

For the past four months, Ron Rivellini, a freelance store designer and art dealer, has been waging a legal battle for what he says is his home, the second floor of a decrepit three-story, 157-year-old building that stands—barely—at 17 Leonard St., amid multi-million-dollar Tribeca lofts.

The building’s owner has called him “essentially a squatter.”

Last December the Buildings Department found the structure to be in perilous condition, with multiple widening cracks, a dislodged post that supports the beam above the entrance, and the “bow-out” of a wall among its many structural problems. It cited the owner, Christopher Rolf, 61, for failing to maintain the building’s exterior and issued a vacate order. That forced out Rivellini, the only one living there, and prompted him to sue Rolf to make the building habitable so that he could return.

Hearings on the case, which began in June, continue this month.

While Rivellini, 43, wants Rolf to repair the cracks, restore electrical and water service, and correct violations, Rolf claims that Rivellini never lived there legally in the first place. And besides, he says, the building’s unsafe conditions were caused by construction of the nine-story building next door at 15 Leonard St. It is the developer, Steven Schnall, he maintains, who should pay to fix them. Schnall denies Rolf’s claims and that dispute has been ongoing for well over a year.

In the meantime, 17 Leonard Street, built as a stable in 1856, remains in a sad, deteriorating state, its brick walls cracked so wide in some places that light streams through. One window is open and another broken, leaving the interior exposed to the elements. Early this year the Landmarks Preservation Com­mission issued a permit for shoring and bracing in order to “temporarily” stabilize the building.

“Because initial steps have been taken to address the situation the LPC has not issued a violation,” LPC spokeswoman Damaris Olivo said in an email, “but if progress is stalled, this issue will be revisited.”

Just when the vacate order can be lifted is another matter. And it will be up to the Housing Court judge, Sabrina Kraus, to determine whether Rivellini has the right, as he claims, to live there once it does.

Rolf could have plenty to lose. The building, which has IMD (interim multiple dwelling) status with the city, was on the market for $15.7 million when it was vacated.

Rivellini argues that, as a legal tenant, he is protected from eviction under the Loft Law. As the only tenant outside of Rolf’s family, he would be the sole impediment to Rolf’s ability to sell the building. But Rolf alleges that Rivellini put himself in that position unlawfully by rushing to take over the middle and back portions of 17 Leonard’s second floor after a tenant moved out in the spring of 2013. In court papers, he calls Rivellini’s claim “a bad faith and opportunistic attempt to create a Loft Law tenancy.”

Rivellini said he both moved into the building and expanded into the larger space with Rolf’s permission.

Rivellini also says he took occupancy of part of the first floor in March 2012, under an agreement in which he was paid for doing maintenance work related to the building’s stalled legalization process. At that time he said he considered the front part of the second floor to be his home.

“I was telling [Rolf] that it wasn’t the monetary payments that were my biggest concern,” Rivellini testified. “I was more interested in making sure that I had a place to live, as I currently did, at 17 Leonard Street.”

Rolf, who is bedridden from a February 2012 car accident and testified via closed circuit television, contended that he had never heard from Rivellini until September 2012––six months after Rivellini said that he moved there.

“[Rivellini] asked me if he could get an apartment there, and I said I was not in a position until the building was legalized for residential tenants,” Rolf testified. “And until the legalization process was complete, there was no way he could live there, but he could use it as an office.”

During that conversation, he said, Rivellini agreed to use the space only to run an art business and complete the tasks Rolf assigned him while he was living with his mother in New Jersey and looking for an apartment in Manhattan.

But Rivellini insisted that he only visited the New Jersey home occasionally, for no more than two days at a time, to care for his mother, who is 73.

Then there was the matter of rent—at least that is what Rivellini called it. Each month, he paid $1,200 to Rolf’s grown son Anderson, with the understanding, he said, that it would be passed on to the father.

Rolf referred to the money as a complicated arrangement for indirectly providing support to his son.

Rolf said he had a strained relationship with Anderson, who had lived on the third floor and did not want help from his father. But Anderson, who suffers epileptic seizures, could not afford the medicine he needed, his father said.  So, in exchange for Rivellini’s work on the building, Rolf paid Rivellini with the understanding that, in turn, he would pay $1,200 monthly to Anderson. (Anderson has not testified in court and could not be reached for comment.)

But in an email to his father, Anderson wrote, “Ronnie’s rent is a key part of my income.”
“Why did he write that?” Rivellini’s lawyer, David Frazer, asked Rolf.

“I understood it to mean that he needed money,” Rolf replied. “I don't know why he used the word ‘rent.’”

In a heated exchange, Frazer pressed Rolf to explain why, in November 2012, he instructed Rivellini to call himself a “houseguest” when speaking to an attorney representing his sons in the dispute with 15 Leonard Street.

“I said it was an unfortunate choice of words,” Rolf told him. “But I couldn’t think of another one.”

“Why didn’t you use the word superintendent?” Frazer asked.

“Superintendent?” Rolf paused for a moment. “He was there more than that. He did other things. I mean, I don’t know what to tell you.”

Frazer pushed further, asking if “property manager” or “employee” would have been appropriate terms for Rivellini’s position with the building.

“The problem is, he’s kind of in between all those things,” Rolf replied.

“Was he also like a houseguest, who also stayed at the loft?” Frazer countered.

Rolf was insistent.

“He did not, to my knowledge, stay at the loft,” the landlord replied.