By: Josh Barbanel


May 8, 2009 --- Jerry Francesco and his wife, Lucille, have experienced the ups and downs of ordinary human life in the rarefied spaces designed by celebrity architects during the late lamented condominium construction boom in Manhattan.

Late last month, Mr. Francesco, who built and sold a business providing support services to dialysis patients, and his wife paid $7.9 million for a sprawling penthouse at the 22-story Brompton, a new red brick and limestone condominium designed by Robert A. M. Stern at East 85th Street and Third Avenue.

The apartment has five bedrooms, a maid’s room and 3,300 square feet of space in a building with an arched entrance way and a lobby with a marble floor and two landscaped interior courtyards. And to the delight of the Francescos and their lawyer, the condo comes without a private cobblestone sidewalk and driveway.

In 2005, when the real estate boom was young, the couple, who have a home in southeastern Pennsylvania, bought a condo at One Beacon Court, a new building on 58th Street and Third Avenue designed by Cesar Pelli.

The central feature of Mr. Pelli’s design was an elliptical wall of glass that wraps around an intimate cobblestone courtyard beneath a soaring 58-story skyscraper. Condos in the building sold fast, with the sponsor sometimes increasing the prices overnight. The Francescos paid $2.9 million for a two-bedroom apartment on the 42nd floor.

But less than a year later, Ms. Francesco was walking in the courtyard when she tripped over a wheelchair ramp leading from the sidewalk to a driveway. The sidewalk and the roadway were both paved with the same granite stone, and were the same color, except for a thin accent line of darker stone along the curb.

Ms. Francesco, who is in her 60s, fractured her wrist and required surgery to install a plate and screws to help the fracture heal.

The day after she fell, Mr. Francesco said, the building managers put warning signs on both sides of the curb cuts; they eventually installed large planters to prevent others from falling.

In a case that has been wending its way through federal and state court, Ms. Francesco’s lawyer, Mathew Paulose Jr. of Koehler & Isaacs, has been assembling evidence in an effort to show that the developer, Steven Roth, the chairman of Vornado Realty Trust, personally selected the paving stones and intentionally put the architect’s vision and aesthetics ahead of safety. The Francescos are seeking up to $1 million in damages.

“These individuals who were trying to be masters of the universe in New York City, they don’t care about the little people,” Mr. Paulose said.

A Vornado spokesman said this version of events was “totally incorrect,” and in court papers the building blames Ms. Francesco’s own negligence for her fall.

But in a deposition, Mr. Francesco said that after his wife fell, a doorman told him he had seen people trip and stumble over the sidewalk ramp “at least once a day.” Mr. Francesco said that when he asked the building manager, Sean O’Sullivan, why nothing had been done about the ramp, he was told that “they did not want to spoil the architectural appearance of the building.”

Mr. O’Sullivan did not return a phone message left at his office.

The court record includes several memos from an engineering firm that were sent to Vornado and the Pelli firm, warning that at least several designs for the courtyard paving created a “trip hazard” and “potential liability issues relating to pedestrian safety” as long as “the sidewalk and street are the same color and material.

The case had an unusual twist that might be of interest to condominiums. After many hours of depositions and several years in federal court, the case was thrown out by Judge Lawrence M. McKenna in January. It had been brought in federal court because the primary residence of the Francescos is in Pennsylvania. But the judge found that the “citizenship” of the condominium association was in question, since the members lived in many places, including Pennsylvania.

The case was refiled in State Supreme Court in Manhattan.

The Francescos sold their Beacon Court apartment last summer, before the falloff in prices, benefiting perhaps from the architectural stature of the building. They received $5.95 million for it, nearly doubling their investment.

Mr. Palouse said the couple sold because they wanted an apartment on a quieter street outside of the central business district.