On a warm summer day last July, Fire Department inspectors entered a 58-story half-built skeleton of a tower in Lower Manhattan that was supposed to contain luxury condos with stunning views of New York harbor and all the high-end amenities affluent buyers expect.

Instead, four years after it was first scheduled to open, the promised upscale high-rise remained an empty hulk, its upper floors open to the elements, most of its glass wall exterior yet to be installed.

This was 161 Maiden Lane — shut down by its owner midway through construction after the discovery that the entire structure leans slightly to the north.

What the fire inspectors discovered inside the so-called Leaning Tower of Lower Manhattan was alarming: a fire suppression system — a standpipe that provides firefighters with immediate access to water from top to bottom of the building — was not functioning.

Without a standpipe — which is essentially an extension of a fire hydrant — if a fire broke out on an upper floor in the abandoned structure, it would be extremely difficult to put it out. On top of that, inspectors discovered the required fire-watch employees were no longer on site to make sure no one could enter the building and potentially start a fire inside.

And according to a temporary receiver appointed by a court to manage the building while lawsuits continue over who’s to blame for the building’s tilt, 161 Maiden Lane had been without a working standpipe for more than a year when the FDNY showed up to inspect it.

The receiver, Richard Cohn, told THE CITY that the problem with the standpipe began after a homeless person broke into the half-built structure sometime before he was sworn in as receiver in June 2021. Cohn said the person turned on the motor that powers the standpipe to generate heat, which broke the motor and disabled the standpipe.

Richard Bamberger, a spokesperson for the building’s owner, Fortis Building Group LLC, told THE CITY, “We are not aware of any problem with the standpipe when the receiver took over.” 

But there was a significant gap in FDNY inspections, starting around the time the receiver began managing the building. While inspectors had found the standpipe functioning throughout 2020 and into May 2021 before Cohn showed up, they weren’t able to gain access to the building and check the standpipe for more than a year after that, according to FDNYspokesperson James Long.

And when they did in July 2022, they found the standpipe was out of order.

Fire Warning

The importance of a working standpipe on a high-rise building project became apparent to all of New York City in August 2007.

That’s when a non-functioning standpipe contributed to a disastrous fire in the upper floors of the empty Deutsche Bank tower, a 39-story building that had been damaged on Sept. 11 and was being demolished. Two firefighters died and 100 were injured after firefighters could not quickly get water up to the floors where the fire started.

The FDNY’s Long made clear the importance of a working standpipe in high-rise buildings: “If there’s an actual fire, you have to work that much harder to get hose lengths and ladders on the upper floors. You need that much more manpower. In that time, the fire can grow and expand.”

Given that history, on July 8, 2022, the FDNY declared 161 Maiden Lane to be a 670-foot-tall fire hazard, requesting an immediate inspection by the Department of Buildings regarding a “major building with no standpipe nor fire watch,” according to building department records.

The FDNY stated that the job site was “open and accessible to public … and no watch person on site as required.” DOB inspectors showed up and discovered all three gauges of the building’s standpipe were “zeroed out,” meaning there was “no pressure with the system” to bring water to the upper floors if necessary, records show.

Many floors at 161 Maiden Lane remain exposed. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

DOB issued a Class 1 hazardous code violation deemed “aggravated offense level 1” for the standpipe and levied a $25,000 penalty. A second Class 1 hazardous violation for the missing-in-action fire watch person triggered a $2,500 fine.

Speaking with THE CITY, the receiver blamed delays in fixing the standpipe on a broken hoist inside the building that was needed to bring a replacement motor to an upper floor.

“The standpipe was compromised, but it needed materials to be installed because the hoist was not working,” said Cohn. “It’s been a tremendous effort to get things stable at the building.”

In mid-September, after the hoist was finally back in service, DOB inspectors determined that the standpipe had been restored and the fire watch employee was back on site.

“The situation has been resolved,” Cohn said.

Records indicate that Fortis paid the fire watch fine, but the standpipe fine — which records state was issued to “Unavailable owner” — remained unpaid as of last week. No one affiliated with 161 Maiden Lane showed up at a Dec. 31 hearing before the city’s Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings (OATH) to resolve it. As a result, the penalty will likely be even higher than $25,000.

“The owners of a stalled work site have a legal responsibility to properly maintain the property in a safe condition,” DOB spokesperson Andrew Rudansky told THE CITY, noting that the department regularly visits 161 Maiden Lane to make sure the owners are complying with all applicable safety regulations. An April inspection found no violations and more checks are set for “the near future.”

Vertical Ghost Town

The useless standpipe was hardly the only safety issue at 161 Maiden Lane, an ambitious development that first went off the rails five years ago and now sits unfinished on the East River waterfront, a symbol of what can go wrong in the rush to make a profit off valuable Manhattan real estate.

Calamity struck the site even before work stopped there. In 2017, a 43-year-old laborer, Juan Chonillo, fell 29 stories to his death during the concrete pour. His employer, SSC High Rise Inc., pleaded guilty

to manslaughter charges and paid $842,000 in restitution for failing to ensure the job site was safe.

A review by THE CITY of emails, affidavits and building department records filed in connection with multiple pending lawsuits about who is to blame for the structure’s troubled state reveals that the building’s unexpected tilt has raised safety concerns that go beyond a non-functioning fire suppression system.

The saga began at ground level in 2014 with a geotechnical design firm hired by Fortis Building Group, RA Engineer LLP, that made recommendations about the massive building’s foundation.

RA first recommended driving piles deep into the Manhattan bedrock lying beneath the landfill deposited there starting in the 19th century, which makes up much of the East River’s shoreline. All of the buildings around 161 Maiden Lane relied on this pile-driving technique for support, and RA declared that building settlement and movement would be negligible with a pile-driven foundation.

But RA also offered Fortis a less expensive alternative: injecting chemicals into the soil to harden the fill. RA declared this method was “technically feasible,” with the caveat that the developer could expect two-inch settlement during construction, with an additional one inch once the building was complete and occupied. This is the method Fortis adopted.

Department of Buildings records indicate the agency received documents regarding a soil inspection in September 2014 and approved the foundation plan on Oct. 1, 2015.

But by summer 2019, Fortis publicly acknowledged that 161 Maiden Lane was now tilting to the north by three inches before the building was even finished.

Fortis’ architect, WSP USA, claimed this was a “manageable” degree. But Thornton Tomasetti, an engineering firm hired by the project’s construction manager, Pizzarotti LLC, asserted that the tilt was even worse than that, leaning by four inches even before the full weight of an occupied building was in place.

“The [settlement] values predicted have been exceeded already and the full dead load of the building has not yet been added and the building occupants have not yet moved in,” according to Elisabeth Malsch, a licensed engineer and senior principal at Tomasetti. “The ongoing movement of the top of the building long after top-out suggests that this long-term creep behavior is far more significant than the short-term movement that occurred during pauses in construction.

“Additional movement will occur as work progresses,” Malsch warned.

In its lawsuit, Fortis blamed Pizzarotti. As the architect, WSP USA insisted the chemical injection method was not an issue and instead charged that Pizzarotti did not properly oversee the concrete pour at the site and failed to maintain “plumbness,” or straighness, as the building rose upward. That, WSP contended, was the reason for the excessive tilt.

In its suit against Fortis, Pizzarotti placed the blame squarely on what it deemed to be the design flaw caused by the decision not to pile drive the foundation. (Both suits are pending.)

Pizzarotti’s lawsuit quoted an email by the project’s concrete subcontractor first noticing the tilt in April 2018, describing what he said was “unusual settlement” of the building. That June the subcontractor for the glass curtain wall that sheaths the building’s exterior discovered the building’s wall frame showed a two-inch difference to the north between the 11th and 21st floors.

‘Safety Remains a Concern’

By 2019, all work had stopped at the site. In an affidavit recommending that work should not resume until the project could be redesigned, Malsch of Thornton Tomasetti warned of dangerous conditions if work continued without a design revamp.

“Safety remains a concern with respect to future work, particularly the installation of the [glass] curtain wall,” she stated. “There is insufficient information to assure that the building will remain safe if work advances because the building continues to settle and there is no evidence that the curtain wall has been properly re-designed to take the movement into account.”

The degree of lean could also result in “breaking windows and components falling to the street,” which could “fall from a height of up to 58 stories down to the street below, causing grave injury to persons and property,” Malsch stated.

Despite the discovery of the tilt, construction continued, with the building topping out in fall 2018. When Pizzarotti sued Fortis in spring 2019, they notified Fortis that work could not proceed until the building was redesigned.

Since then the building has remained a vertical ghost town. Most of the upper floors remain open to the elements, and the billboard attached to the sidewalk shed that advertises a summer 2021 opening is now scarred with graffiti.

Records also show that Fortis continued to sell 161 Maiden Lane condominium apartments throughout 2018 and into 2019, long after the issue with the building’s tilt had been brought to their attention.

At least two buyers of high-priced condos there have sued the developer, alleging that Fortis deliberately misled them about the major defect in the building.

Both buyers are also alleging that while Fortis refunded down payments on the units, they’ve refused to return hundreds of thousands of dollars the purchasers paid out toward apartment upgrades, claiming that the money has already been spent.

One buyer, Linda Gerstman, closed on a $1.2 million 46th floor unit on Halloween 2018 — seven months after Fortis first learned that the building was tilting northward. Fortis didn’t let Gerstman know about the project’s problems until June 2019, the suit alleged.

Fortis refunded $900,000 to Gerstman but refused to return the remaining $300,000, according to the suit, which alleges both fraud and breach of contract. Fortis’ lawyers filed a counterclaim, denying the fraud allegation and pointing to purchase agreement language that stated Gerstman “relied solely on the purchaser’s own judgment and investigation” in signing the contract to buy the condo.

In 2021, Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Arthur Engorom rejected Fortis’ motion to toss the breach of contract allegation, but dismissed the fraud charge as “redundant.” The suit is pending.

Gerstman’s attorney, Randy Kleinman, did not respond to THE CITY’s calls seeking comment.

Carolyn Miu and other members of her New Jersey family made similar allegations in a suit filed in August 2022, contending that Fortis knew of the building’s tilt problem months before closing on the sale of two units for $854,040. Fortis is refusing to return $103,200 of that, the Miu family alleged.

The Miu family’s attorney, Dennis Villasana, declined to comment. The suit is pending.

On Friday Bamberger, speaking for Fortis, repeated the lawsuit’s claim that Pizzarotti is to blame for the unexpected tilt, but said the building remains “structurally stable.”

“We look forward to resolving these legal matters, making the appropriate remedial measures, completing the building, and having residents enjoy this great property,” Bamberger stated.