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Among the Rich, a New Dispute Over Air Rights - New York Times
Among the Rich, a New Dispute Over Air Rights

Published: May 16, 2007
It’s not the war against third world debt, but still.
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Bono, the lead singer of U2, the pop music group, lives in a penthouse at the San Remo.

The New York Times

Bono, the lead singer of U2 and a globetrotting activist for social causes, has become involved in a battle that may be as intractable as loan burdens in the developing world — a Manhattan co-op dispute.

One of his adversaries is a fellow rocker, Billy Squier, best known for 1980s songs like “The Stroke.” The two live in the San Remo, a storied building with twin towers that loom over Central Park West. (It is the same building that rejected Madonna in 1985 when she sought to buy an apartment.)

The dispute is over whether hazardous smoke from fireplaces, including Mr. Squier’s, is drifting from chimneys into the penthouse duplex where Bono lives with his wife and four children. About a year ago the co-op board banned the use of fireplaces throughout the building, angering fireplace owners, who love a pine-scented blaze in the city as well as their enhanced property values.

As with other co-op disputes, exact details are hard to pin down because these buildings are essentially private clubs run by a board of elected tenants, and anyone who airs grievances in public risks being ostracized in his own hallway, sometimes for generations. The San Remo, at West 74th Street, is home to many prominent New Yorkers, including Steve Martin, Steven Spielberg, the producers Scott Rudin and James L. Nederlander, and the writers Andrew Tobias and Marshall Brickman.

Interviews with more than a dozen residents and with associates of Bono and Mr. Squier present a consistent picture of events in a place where even the most privileged property owners cannot escape the concerns of neighbors.

The dispute started, residents say, when Bono bought his penthouse in the building’s north tower in April 2003 from Steve Jobs, a founder of Apple Computer, for around the $14.5 million asking price. Mr. Jobs had spent millions on renovations, including adding a residential floor, said the listing broker, Roger Erickson, now a senior managing director at Sotheby’s International Realty. Mr. Jobs never spent a night in the apartment, Mr. Erickson said.

At some point after moving in, Bono (who was born Paul Hewson) and his wife, Ali Hewson, who also own homes in Dublin and the south of France, noticed smoke drifting toward their apartment from chimneys in the roof, according to residents in the building familiar with the situation.

The Hewsons approached the co-op board about the smoke and related chimney problems. “Bono was so nice,” said Leni May, whose husband, Peter May, is a member of the board. “He said, ‘Listen, whatever I can do to get these things working, but it’s emptying into my apartment and I can’t have smoke like that.’ ” One of the Hewsons’ children has asthma, he told the board, Ms. May said. The couple have two daughters, 18 and 15, and two sons, 7 and 5.

Other residents had complained about smoke entering their apartments through faulty flues in the 1930 building. The board banned the use of fireplaces while the problems were studied.
Soon, hackles went up, notably those of Mr. Squier, whose apartment on the third floor includes a fireplace, and Mark Gordon, another resident with a fireplace.

Only about 40 of the building’s roughly 135 apartments have fireplaces, said Phyliss Koch, a real estate broker who has lived in the San Remo for 29 years and has been the listing agent in many sales there. Renovations over the years may have caused chimney ventilation problems, she added. Mr. Gordon sent at least one flier through the building seeking to raise awareness about the fireplace issue, residents said.

The fireplace owners’ position was that the Hewsons had complained when they saw the smoke coming toward their penthouse, not because they had evidence that harmful pollution was entering their living quarters, said a longtime friend and tour manager of Mr. Squier’s.
“It was just assumed that because they could see the exhaust, that would present a problem to their children,” the tour manager said, adding that Mr. Squier, whose last hit was “Rock Me Tonight” in 1984, had discussed the issue in detail with him. (Mr. Squier did not respond to messages left with an assistant seeking comment.)

Mr. Gordon declined to comment, beyond saying: “I don’t want to see this in the press in any way whatsoever. It could only be more damaging to the situation. The situation is a delicate and private one.”

The fireplace complaint is not a case of a prima donna pop star making unreasonable demands, said a representative from Principle Management, the company that manages Bono’s band, U2.

“This is not a Bono issue,” the representative said. “It’s a building issue. It’s about health and safety regulations.” Neither Bono, who was in Germany this week to press the Group of 8 nations for more African aid, nor his wife would comment, the representative said.

Meanwhile, the news from experts brought in by the San Remo to examine the fireplaces has not been good. “Apparently, the mistakes were made before any of us moved into the San Remo,” said Ms. May, who is chairwoman of the Jewish Museum in Manhattan. “It’s to the point where we’re not to code and we can’t fix it. It’s not fixable.”

Other residents said the problem is that the building chimneys end at a height that is hazardously close to the Hewsons’ tower duplex, and that emissions tests have confirmed unsafe levels of smoke. Making the chimneys taller would be expensive and present an eyesore that might run afoul of the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, the residents said.

One resident, Mitch Miller, the host of the 1960s television program “Sing Along with Mitch,” had little sympathy for the log-lighting set. “If people want fireplaces, let them go live in the country,” said Mr. Miller, who is 95.

Many residents appear to be choosing to let the most passionate ones fight this battle, and saving their energy for other struggles. Mr. Brickman, a co-writer of the movie “Annie Hall” and of the Broadway hit “Jersey Boys,” worked the dispute for comedy. After trying out a few fireplace jokes during a telephone interview, the longtime San Remo resident tinkered with his material and called back. “People who continue to roast meat in their fireplaces,” he said, “should be required to move to the East Side,” adding, “Other than that I have no position.”
The San Remo had its annual shareholders meeting May 8. The fireplace issue was raised, but no resolutions were passed, said building residents who attended.

“People were fighting about other things — pets, this and that,” one longtime resident said.
With the fireplace season over, the dispute seems to have quieted, at least until next winter.
“I’m putting all my effort into trying to make sure the Democrats widen our lead in the Congress and win back the White House,” said Andrew Tobias, a financial writer and San Remo resident who is also treasurer of the Democratic National Committee. “So the fireplace controversy is not high on my list.” He paused. “But if I had a fireplace, it would be high on my list.”

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