Residents of West River House, right, in Manhattan lost their windows when the low-rise next door was replaced with a Robert A.M. Stern-designed condominium building. NYT PIC

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 Cos began construction on a 10-storey 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 US$2.55 million (RM10.59 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.”

Biggs and 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,” 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 neighbour 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 owners of this Brooklyn townhouse installed a lot-line window in their kitchen, knowing that it will likely be blocked if a building goes up next door. NYT PIC

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,” 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, 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 3 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.

Put hanging lights in the corner of your garden and light up occasionally.

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, 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.” NYT

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