Colin Rath remembers the call — almost a decade ago now — that derailed his dream and set him on a hellish course of extreme debt and legal jeopardy. It was pouring rain that morning in November 2006, and the radio said the West Side Highway was flooded. For Rath, who reverse-commuted from Manhattan to Stamford, that meant taking FDR Drive to I-95 while dodging overconfident SUV drivers in the downpour.
Back in Manhattan he was two years deep and behind schedule on a project to build a fully sustainable, eight-story condominium building that would cantilever over an adjacent property 20 feet to the east. Included in the construction would be two geothermal wells, passive solar radiant heating, reclaimed natural materials, modular construction, a car lift to a private garage and folding glass doors, all in an ultra-modern design.
“It was the green dream on steroids,” said Rath.
In order to support the weight of the cantilevered portion, concrete pilings would be driven eight to 12 feet below the basement floor, which was built in 1853 and made of chunks of old schist stacked and mortared together.
Rath’s contractor, Richie of a company called Plumb Level and Square, had already dug out five feet below the schist foundation, and had a cement pour scheduled that was threatened by the rain, a potentially serious setback on a project that was already very behind schedule. A worker named Ace had arrived at the site at 5 a.m. to assess the situation. Rath’s phone rang a little over two hours later. It was his wife.
“Pam, what’s up?” he said.
“It’s not good, Colin. Ace got hurt. Pretty bad,” Pam said.
“The guy on Richie’s crew?”
“Right. That old schist wall let go and he was under it. He’s lucky to be alive,” Pam replied.
Ace was taken to nearby Saint Vincent’s Hospital. He had broken his foot and would eventually recuperate.
But the accident brought in the regulatory cavalry, and so began Rath’s travails. The ordeal is laid out in his book, “It Is What It Is — A True Manhattan Real Estate Nightmare With A Silver Lining,” which he published in May.
Rath, a transplant from Chicago, moved east in 1992 to run the family’s direct mail marketing business in Stamford. He lived in Manhattan to avoid the “slow death” of living in the suburbs. He and Pam married in 1996, the same year they bought their first building at 121 West 15th St., which they lived in and subsequently renovated. They then bought the adjacent property at 123 West 15th St. and made plans for the green dream.
But all that was put on hold after the schist wall collapsed. Rath said that you call an ambulance to a construction site, the fire department automatically responds and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is automatically notified.
“The accident brought in OSHA and every investigator in New York State,” Rath said.
The agency shut down the site pending an investigation, which eventually found that Richie, in a bid to save time and money, had not driven the pilings down to bedrock.
“We had to investigate all the foundation pilings, and it turned out none of them went down to bedrock,” Rath said. “We had to redo the whole foundation.”
Rath said had the accident not occurred and construction continued, the cantilevered portion of the building would have most certainly collapsed. “He defrauded me and did not build the foundation down to bedrock,” he said. “No matter what, it would have fallen down.”
Rath’s initial vision was cutting-edge in the budding green building movement. It attracted the attention of filmmakers who signed on to record the process and produce a documentary, which is where his book originated. But as things took a turn for the worse, the book and film became less about sustainable building and more about surviving a Kafkaesque misadventure in Manhattan real estate.
“Perseverance is the message of the book,” Rath said.
After the investigation concluded, Rath spent another $3 million to redo the foundation. But in the spring of 2007 the financial collapse hit, which cut off his access to funds he needed to finish the project. He and Pam wound up leveraging their home at 121 West 15th St., which still was not enough. At the height of the ordeal, Rath was facing more than two dozen lawsuits from creditors, business partners and contractors.
“We were at our lowest when we got foreclosed on by our bank, and were threatened to be thrown out of our home,” he said. “We had 27 lawsuits against us, and numerous creditors because we used everything we had to keep this going.”
But as suggested by the book’s title, Rath’s story has an upside. The silver lining turned up when the state courts threw out a $2.7 million mortgage on 123 West 15th St. It turned out that the bank, due to a series of convoluted mortgage transfers on the secondary market, could not prove they owned the property. This allowed Rath to sell his condo and extricate his family from financial and legal ruin.
“We really had no choice, we had to persevere,” said Rath, who at the time of this interview with a reporter was sailing with his family around the Isle of Wight in England. “You either lie dead and you never get up, or you keep on going through and there’s a light at the end of the tunnel someplace down there. You’ve just got to keep on pushing through.”
Rath’s book is available on Amazon.com or through his website at terrapinindustries.com.