Letting Go of a Piece of Personal History

| 17 Feb 2015 | 01:15

How and why the owner of a neglected town house on the Upper West Side finally decided to sell

Upper West Side Thirty-eight years of sitting on a moldering townhouse on the Upper West Side has finally paid off for Diane Haslett-Rudiano, who last week realized a 1,320 percent return on her and her now-deceased husband's 1976 investment.

The couple bought the property, at 118 West 76th Street between Columbus and Amsterdam avenues, for $5,000 in 1976. Her husband, Jean, died in 2011. In the intervening years, Haslett-Rudiano has withstood blistering criticism from the building's neighbors, attention in the press, repeated admonishments from elected officials, and constant overtures from brokers looking to sell the property.

Neighbors, preservationists and elected officials complained about the neglect and the rats that had taken up residence. The building's windows are all boarded up, and the sidewalk in front has occasionally been used as a dumping ground for mattresses and other urban detritus. Inside there are holes in the roof and the floor, and snow accumulates during the winter months. Over the years the front façade has been graffitied over countless times.

Brokers, on the other hand, have regarded its sale as a challenge: prime real estate, notorious building, and an eccentric widow holding out for reasons of her own. Closing such a deal would be a highlight on any broker's resume. The one that eventually did has been working it for 20 years and insured his firm and his name would be mentioned in this article.

In an interviews, Haslett-Rudiano said she held onto the building for sentimental reasons; her husband always had dreams of renovating it. After he died, it was hard to just let it go.

But in interviews with several people involved in the transaction, it appears to be more complicated than that. Haslett-Rudiano sold the building last week for $6.6 million to Holliswood 76 LLC, an investment group, according to The Wall Stret Journal.

"It's a very bizarre story and I don't really understand it all," said Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, who got involved in the effort to do something with the building 13 years ago as a city council member.

According to Arlene Simon, who founded and heads Landmark West, a preservation group on the West Side, the Upper West Side-Central Park West Historic District was created in 1995, and 118 West 76th Street was one of over 2,000 buildings to receive historic status at the time. As a result, the building's facade and structure can't be altered in any way without permission from the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Simon said the building first came onto her radar in the early nineties when she had a granddaughter who attended nursery school nearby. Landmark West made some attempts to reach Haslett-Rudiano between then and 2011, but was rebuffed.

"It became apparent to me over the years that this building was in dire need of help," said Simon.

In 2011, Landmark West began to receive an increase in calls from parties interested in buying the property as well as complaints from those in the community. Simon and others at Landmark West redoubled their efforts to find out more about the building and to reach Haslett-Rudiano, eventually assigning an intern to the project full time.

Adding to the intrigue, Haslett-Rudiano is the chief clerk with the city's Board of Elections in Brooklyn, and has ties to the city's Republican Party establishment. Simon said in addition to other forms of pressure, like calling the New York Daily News, which did a story on the building last year, she tried a more political tack by contacting a prominent Brooklyn Democrat to reach out to his colleagues across the aisle to see if something could be done.

"The politics on this from day one have just been mystifying," said Simon. "[The Brooklyn Democrat] called the Republicans he knew, I called the Republican club she was involved with, we called just about the entire world that meant anything to this whole project."

Nothing she tried worked.

"She never would take my phone calls," said Simon, who even threatened to mount a social media campaign on Facebook, "thinking that would make a difference. It didn't matter to her."

At the same time, Brewer was applying a great deal of pressure herself. She said in the early 2000s she began writing letters to Haslett-Rudiano urging her to do something with the property.

"I called her too, I finally got her cell," Brewer told the West Side Spirit. "I went to Board of Election meetings, and it's not appropriate to bother her because she's at work, but I did. And then I also contacted the head of the Board of Elections, and that wasn't appropriate either, but I did."

Haslett-Rudiano credits the pressure from Brewer as being responsible for the building's ultimate sale. Brewer told the West Side Spirit she's surprised by that, and last remembers contacting her about the property in December of 2013.

"I hadn't talked to her since December, so I was kind of surprised," said Brewer. "People would tell me out of the blue, 'I talked to Diane and she said you convinced her to sell the building.'"

Unlike Simon, Brewer said Haslett-Rudiano, surprisingly, never avoided her.

"That's the other thing that's really strange," said Brewer. "She would take my calls, she was always very nice. It's hard to get mad at somebody when they're very nice. Maybe she was smarter than I am and she was holding out for more money."

Brewer said Haslett-Rudiano told her different things over the years as to why she didn't want to sell, or would lead Brewer to believe she was taking steps in that direction.

"Sometimes it was 'I'm attached to the building because it was my husband's building,' and sometimes it was, 'I'm getting a broker,' and I said, 'well can I have the name of the broker?'" said Brewer. "She never gave me the name of the broker. So you can see this went on and on and on."

Haslett-Rudiano did not return requests to comment. Much of the credit, said Brewer, goes to the broker.

"I'm very persistent," said Mike Sieger, an associate broker with Fenwick Keats Real Estate who finally landed his personal Nemo. "I knew eventually she would sell, I just knew it."

Sieger said he first contacted Haslett-Rudiano 20 years ago, when he was first starting out in real estate. As for why she chose now to sell, and anointed Sieger to handle the transaction, he said, "I got her a very good price."

Sieger said he's considered giving up on Haslett-Rudiano throughout the years, but never did.

"I'm very pleased that I'm the broker that was able to succeed," said Sieger. "Not only was I one of many, many brokers that called her, there were many, many buyers that were calling her and wanted to buy it cheap and wanted to buy it direct from her."

But both Brewer and Simon alluded to another reason Haslett-Rudiano chose now to sell, one that isn't quite understood by anyone who spoke to the West Side Spirit. At one point Haslett-Rudiano owned another neglected property on West 73rd Street that recently changed hands a number of times.

Simon said the ownership battle over the building on West 73rd Street had something to do with the sale of the West 76th Street building, but she doesn't know what exactly. "It's one of those things where you can't quite figure out the pieces," she said.

City records indicate that property, at 44 West 73rd Street, is now owned by a company called Kojo Global Property Development and has been placed on the market.

But for both she and Brewer, as well as the building's neighbors, the sale marks the end to a three-dozen year saga and is mainly a win for the community.

"There are so many wins and so many losses," said Simon. "This gave people the notion that if you work hard enough, and if you're an advocate that doesn't give up, then there can be success at the end of the line."