By ANDREW RICE
The New York Times
originally published March 18th, 2011
The Supersizer of Brooklyn
Let’s begin with the mystery of the hidden bathroom.
It’s the summer of 2008. A young couple decides to buy an 800-square-foot apartment in a new condo building on the gentrifying outer edge of a fashionable Brooklyn neighborhood. The buyers go to close on the place, and as they’re signing away half a million dollars, the building’s developer, keeping a wary eye on the hovering lawyers, leans over and whispers something. There’s a second bathroom in the apartment, he says, one that does not appear on the floor plan — its doorway is concealed behind an inconspicuous layer of drywall. At first, the buyers think the developer is kidding. This is before the crash, near the peak of the market, and no one’s giving away a square inch. But the developer says no, he’s dead serious, just look. So a few days after they buy the place, the couple takes a sledgehammer to their wall.
This building was the handiwork of the architect Robert Scarano.
I first heard this particular Scarano story — one of many in a genre — from a friend, an architect, over beers at our neighborhood bar in Brooklyn. She told it the way a stockbroker might relate the misdeeds of Bernie Madoff, her professional disapproval commingled with a distinct sense of wonderment at the things the guy got away with, at least for a while. Through the mid-2000s, a period roughly coinciding with the real estate bubble, Scarano was one of the city’s most productive architects, and certainly its most controversial, an omnipresent force in the outer-borough building boom that transformed row-house streets and industrial districts into colonies of stucco and sake bars. Working on hundreds of projects, many of them small-scale buildings that could be constructed quickly, without the rigmarole of public hearings, he remolded entire neighborhoods in his steely, angular, brash — some would say garish — style.
It wasn’t aesthetics, though, that made Scarano the defining draftsman of that brief and ultimately delusional moment. It was the way he created room. In a city of cramped living, where space is guarded as jealously as Bedouin water, Scarano’s buildings were designed to stimulate a primal pleasure center. They were loftlike, with soaring ceilings that drove their heights above the roofline and their prices to levels unheard of in formerly marginal neighborhoods. Enemies of overdevelopment protested that his towering designs were ugly and out of context, while other architects groused that he was circumventing the constraints of the zoning code. Scarano countered that his competitors just weren’t creative enough, that he thought in cubic feet, not square, delivering more light, more air and more space to an eager buying public. And, not incidentally, more profit to his clients.
A hidden room, though, added another dimension — one that couldn’t be explained by craft or capitalism. Why wall off such precious space? My architect friend contacted the condo’s owner, a relative, and he agreed to show me his apartment, on the condition that I not reveal its location or his name. (He’s still uncertain of all the legalities.) On a weekend afternoon, I found the owner watching basketball in his living room, beneath a 15-foot ceiling, with the afternoon sun streaming in through a window almost as tall. Up a steep set of metal stairs, above an open kitchen, was a mezzanine loft — Scarano’s signature design element — where the man kept an office. In the loft’s far corner, next to a washer-dryer, was the beige-tiled second bathroom. A contractor had finished the door, but otherwise, it was exactly as the couple had found it behind the drywall. “There were a couple of dust bunnies,” he said, “but other than that it was a brand new shower, brand new sink, the light bulbs worked, the toilet flushed.”
The owner wasn’t sure what had happened. He knew about Scarano’s very public fall, amid myriad claims of malpractice, lawsuits and tabloid headlines that branded him a “Building Blockhead” and “Architect of Ruin?” But he had no complaints; he was happy with his surprise gift. “It was the most amazing thing,” he said. “It was like an oasis of a bathroom.”
Still, the question remained, what was it doing behind a wall?
This, to me, is what it’s about,” Robert Scarano said. “The feeling of space when you’re in the room.” On an unseasonably lovely February day, the architect, dressed in a charcoal-colored pinstriped suit, strode through an apartment in Vere 26, a high-rise building in Long Island City. A pair of sunglasses was perched on his wavy mane of hair, which matched the shade of the stainless-steel kitchen. Scarano waved his hand across the skyline of Manhattan, which embraced the room through floor-to-ceiling glass.
Along the vista, old oaks like the Empire State Building and the U.N. headquarters stood amid the fresh shoots of the last decade. It was, in fact, a period of architectural flowering. “A lot of people over the years said that New York doesn’t have a lot of good architecture,” Scarano said. Critics used to wonder aloud about the city’s lost spirit of innovation and bemoan decades of monolithic blandness — but then, around 2000, tastes changed. Or, to be more precise, developers figured out that their buildings would be more popular and profitable if they were presented as the work of great artists: “starchitects,” the marketers called them. And so, eminent names like Norman Foster, Renzo Piano and Frank Gehry were invited to leave their mark on the skyline.
Scarano had offered to meet me at Vere 26, after a long period of litigation- related silence, in order to make a categorical point: that in his own scaled-down, pragmatic, outer-borough way, he, too, deserved to be counted as an artist. For this building, set on an elongated corner lot, he was forced to grapple with zoning rules that appeared to mandate a ponderous, blocky structure. He worked around the restrictions by surrounding the building with a decorative lattice — “a sprightly frame of white painted steel,” as it was described in an approving write-up in the latest edition of the A.I.A. Guide to New York City, a canonical volume. The guide’s authors had given much fainter praise to several other Scarano buildings, but the architect seized on his very mention as a vindication. The book appeared as his business was reeling and the city government, claiming misconduct, was fighting to ban him from practicing his profession.
“People ask me why I didn’t just fold up my tent and move,” Scarano said. “We stood there under the microscope, with 10,000 watts of light on us . . . because it’s easy to stand there when you believe in what you do.”
Scarano is stubborn and pugnacious by nature, a defiant son of Brooklyn. He lives in Gravesend, in a colonial that his grandfather used to own, to which he recently added an enormous A-framed front window. In a highly stratified profession, divided between a name-brand elite of “design architects” and a vastly larger population of “developers’ architects,” who work with more mundane budgets and expectations, Scarano represents an odd amalgam. He’s a speculator’s auteur. “We were trying to really raise the bar,” he said, “for those people who were typically not as concerned about doing projects of an aesthetic note.” Whatever his buildings lack, it isn’t ambition — they’re always more than they have to be, which is precisely the trouble.
Scarano’s father was a mechanical engineer, who sent his son to City College with the intent of bringing him into the trade. Although the younger Scarano diverged from that plan, he has always prided himself on his mastery of gritty practicalities: permits, zoning, the trade in air rights, which allow building density to be transferred from one property to another. Setting up his practice in Brooklyn, Scarano developed a reputation as someone who brought an element of flair to even modest projects. He was well positioned when, in the early 2000s, affluent professionals began their mass migration across the East River. “He has an extreme talent when it comes to designing a unique piece of property,” says Elan Padeh, founder of a consulting firm called the Developers Group, which spearheaded the gentrification in neighborhoods like Williamsburg. “Zoning is a complicated process, and he was definitely a great teacher.”
Padeh and others like him acted as intermediaries between property owners — oftentimes, in Williamsburg and elsewhere, members of Brooklyn’s insular Orthodox Jewish communities — and a worldly new buyer, who might not have money for Richard Meier but still wanted a modernist habitat. Scarano began producing designs to meet this market’s demand. “His architecture attracts the eye, and there is something to be said for how that radiates to the sale side,” Padeh said. “When developers saw that, they decided that they wanted to work with Robert.” By 2004, Scarano was collaborating with the Developers Group’s clients on dozens of projects. Over the next few years, he submitted plans for nearly 250 new buildings and many more renovations.
In the space of just a few years, Scarano’s practice more than tripled in size, to 55 architects and design professionals. His business was headquartered on the top floor of a converted warehouse building, flush against the Manhattan Bridge. When the firm outgrew its space, he built an addition on the building’s roof, a geometrical riot topped by triangular trusses that were lighted in many colors at night. It was a jaw-dropping sight from the bridge.
“There’s an overriding theme in a lot of our work, which I would call this Mondrianic composition in terms of the materials,” Scarano told me. The 5,000-square-foot addition also functioned as a prominent advertisement for his theories about living large. “The volume of space and the way people feel in spaces that are more grandiose is quite different, and it affects the psyche,” Scarano said. “The idea that the zoning could be used to help create space, interesting spaces, I think was something that wasn’t really being explored.”
The purpose of zoning is to provide for restrained development. But in Scarano’s view, the city’s code was a Talmudic document, open to endless avenues of interpretation. Through a variety of arcane strategies, he could literally pull additional real estate out of the air. In the high-ceilinged warehouses of SoHo and TriBeCa, for instance, an earlier generation of gentrifiers had increased their living space by constructing mezzanines, creating the loft look that so many buyers were now after. “The population of factory buildings was unfortunately being used up,” Scarano said. “So what did we do? We created the factory aesthetic in new construction.” And he didn’t just take the aesthetic — he also adapted the zoning rules that applied to warehouse conversions. Under certain circumstances, the code classified loft mezzanines as storage space, not floor area, and Scarano assured developers their new building plans could slip through this loophole. Effectively, he said, he could fashion double-decker apartments, in buildings that were four stories for legal purposes and eight stories for marketing.
“That was the line: Go to Bob, he’ll get you a bigger building than anyone else,” says the Brooklyn architect John Hatheway, who helped lead a successful campaign for new height restrictions in his neighborhood, inspired by various projects, including Scarano’s. Developers began demanding more from their architects, or else they would just seek an audience with Scarano, who always seemed to find ways to magically enlarge a competitor’s plan. “We would see people lining up, sitting down, waiting in the waiting room to see him,” said Samy Brahimy, a developer who had been visiting Scarano’s office for years. “It was a little baffling.”
Few clients delved into the secrets of Scarano’s leger demain. “I assumed it was some combination of expertise, knowledge of the code and relationships” at the Department of Buildings, said a developer who, like many other former Scarano clients, asked not to be named because he no longer wants his buildings associated with the architect. “If people are delivering good things, you don’t want to ask questions.”
Scarano, like many in his voluble profession, has strong opinions about other architects. He appreciates Jean Nouvel for his visionary use of glass; he’s not a fan of Meier, whose work, he once said, is characterized by “a tremendous slavery to Modernism.” One building that he’s particularly fond of is the Porter House, a Meatpacking District renovation, where SHoP Architects added a zinc-paneled four-story addition to an existing Renaissance Revival warehouse. So Scarano said he was excited when, one day in 2005, “a job walks into my office that’s almost a twin of that building.”
A developer named Isaac Fischman had acquired a redbrick warehouse on Carroll Street in Brooklyn, a block from the Gowanus Canal. Over the decades, the industrial site was connected to a jute mill, a light-bulb manufacturer and a lunch-cart business, but the brownstone blocks just to the north and west were now some of the most desirable in the city. “It’s historical, it’s a three-story building, it has a lot of air rights and potential, and an unusual addition could be put on it,” Scarano said. “Well, again, what was a really cool addition to us was not a really cool addition to a lot of other people.”
In 2005, a framework of steel began to go up on top of the warehouse — and up, and up, until the cubic structure was nearly as tall as the original building. Chris McVoy watched the progress with mounting annoyance from his town house down the block. He thought the warehouse addition was grossly out of proportion, and as an experienced architect himself, he was suspicious. “I know the floor-area ratios in the neighborhood,” he said. “There was no way they could be putting that much area on that site. There was something wrong.”
McVoy wasn’t the only one who was incredulous. “It was this monstrous cage on top of a beautiful old manufacturing building,” Katia Kelly, a community blogger, said. “And on top of it, the name Scarano.” The architect’s popularity with developers had met with an equal and opposite reaction from Kelly’s crowd, which considered him a crass enabler of greed. Complaints about the Carroll Street project soon flooded the buildings department, which briefly halted it. In late 2006, though, construction restarted, and McVoy decided to examine Scarano’s plans himself.
McVoy quickly identified what he described as several “pretty glaringly wrong” floor-area calculations, in part related to mezzanines, and concluded that the building under construction was nearly 8,000 square feet too large. He took his analysis to a buildings-department official. Scarano had come up with a complex justification that involved placing parking on the basement level, but that didn’t make sense to McVoy, either. He eventually discovered that Scarano’s survey of the existing building made a key misstatement about its dimensions. (Sidebar, right.) “It’s very hard for me to believe that it was an accidental error,” McVoy said. (Scarano says that the plans were accepted by the buildings department; a spokesman for the department said that happened only after major revisions.)
Scarano boasted that he knew every nook and cranny of the zoning code, and few thought to question his expertise. He had a genial relationship with the buildings department, and he usually submitted his designs under the city’s self-certification program, an honor system instituted to save money during the Giuliani administration. This meant that, in the vast majority of cases, buildings were being constructed with the go-ahead from just one person: Robert Scarano. In neighborhoods all over the city, though, concerned citizens began to throw up obstacles.
A few, like McVoy, had the specialized knowledge necessary to scrutinize Scarano’s fine print. In Manhattan, Kevin Shea, a lawyer specializing in building-code work, grew curious about a new building on the Bowery that he walked by every day — it just looked too tall. When Shea checked, he discovered that the 16-story Bowery Tower development was being constructed under an allowance for college housing, even though no school was involved with the project. After protesters complained that the tower was clearly meant to be apartments, the project stalled, and it was taken over by new developers, who replaced Scarano, refaced the exterior with traditional brick and opened the chic Bowery Hotel. Scarano takes credit for the acclaimed result.
“Even though I was in the industry,” Shea said, “it had never occurred to me that you could put up a building in Manhattan without getting an approval of some kind. The further I looked into it, the more crazy it looked.”
Elsewhere, others were hit with similar realizations, and the opposition came together in a loose-knit network. There was another proposed 16-story tower in Williamsburg, nicknamed “The Finger,” because neighbors said that was what Scarano was giving them. There, the architect met zoning requirements by proposing a shared outdoor deck — on the roof of a neighboring property. The owner, who sued, claimed the architect and developer had conspired to defraud him out of the rights to the space. (Scarano denied wrongdoing, and the case has been settled.) In the neighborhood around Greenwood Cemetery, a graphic designer named Aaron Brashear rallied opposition to a number of Scarano’s buildings, including one that would have blocked a hilltop view of the Statue of Liberty. Critics began to question how Scarano was counting his mezzanines as storage, when the spaces were being marketed as bedrooms, sometimes with adjoining baths.
Scarano vigorously defended himself, saying he was merely “pushing the envelope” of the zoning code’s established interpretation. The controversies over his designs made irresistible material for a multiplying chorus of boom-time news organs devoted to real estate. “Blogs tend to have these heroes and villains,” said Lockhart Steele, founder of the Web site Curbed, who gleefully cast Scarano in the villainous category. “It was like this slowly dawning realization, that all these things we found distasteful were all the work of one man.” Scarano was more than willing to mix it up with opponents. Some received furious ALL CAPS e-mails, others plaintive or ominous phone messages. On the blog Brownstoner, among others, Scarano often posted taunting comments: “Happy to see that all my good friends and critics from the crazy house are still out there” and “Ah, the wild imagination of those who are not in the know. Its [sic] fantastic to read. Get a life!”
Scarano made such comments under his own name — “who wants to go through life being anonymous?” he wrote — but ultimately, his high profile was his undoing. All the complaints and negative press roused the buildings department, which began auditing his projects. Elan Padeh quietly warned his clients that his favored architect had become a liability, and some builders began re-examining their plans.
In 2008, Isaac Fischman removed Scarano from the Carroll Street warehouse project, after the buildings department ordered the developer to stop work. For the last three years, Scarano’s skeletal addition has loomed over the area, symbolic and unfinished. “They got greedy,” McVoy says. “If they had just renovated in that time and not tried to get around zoning, the irony is they would have been done before the crash.” Fischman recently announced that all the steel will come back down, and he will convert the building to apartments while maintaining its existing dimensions. Fischman told me he lost “a serious amount of money” to Scarano-related delays. “I was one of his victims,” he said.
Scarano scoffs at the notion that any developer, Fischman included, was duped into accepting his designs. Architecture “is not so dissimilar from the accounting profession,” he said, dropping all Mondrianic pretense. “When someone goes to their tax accountant . . . they don’t tell the fellow to figure out how to not have the most deductions.” Everyone was happy until the auditors arrived, and then came recriminations. Over the past few years, numerous developers have sued Scarano, claiming he prepared faulty plans, while he has countersued to recover hundreds of thousands in unpaid fees.
In early 2006, after a meticulous review, the city filed a series of civil charges against Scarano in an administrative court, among other things claiming that he “made false or misleading statements” in submissions for 25 self-certified projects. Most of the violations concerned mezzanines. The buildings department had just promulgated new guidelines, holding that if the mezzanines had more than five feet of headroom, they could not count as storage space. A few months after the case was filed, the city settled the charges in return for Scarano’s giving up his right to self-certify. “I believe strongly and until today that my interpretations and my decisions were founded on things that were permissible,” Scarano says, contending that many of his audited buildings were eventually cleared by examiners.
Some wonder, if what he was doing was so blatantly illegal, why Scarano met with approval for so long. Robert LiMandri, the commissioner of the buildings department, said he had “no information that indicates that there was any sort of corruption” and that no employees were disciplined. Rather, he contended, the department was overwhelmed by a “frenzy” of building activity, and it relied on Scarano’s representations, which were often voluminous and confusing. At the time, the department had no way to punish him for lying. In 2007, though, state legislators, inspired by complaints about scofflaw architects, passed a law that allowed tough sanctions. “We really needed this stick to be able to say to people, look, there are no more cat-and-mouse games,” LiMandri said. The department created a new Special Enforcement Unit, focusing on Scarano as an initial target.
The city brought a new prosecution, a complicated case involving adjoining properties and supposed double counting of zoning rights, but then, in late 2008, a seemingly unambiguous bit of trickery dropped into investigators’ laps. Scarano was seeking a routine approval for a commercial building, which could not be occupied as long as an electrical pole was sitting in the middle of a new driveway. The architect submitted a curious photo of the building: shot from an off-center angle, it gave the appearance that the driveway was no longer obstructed. When the city sent an inspector to the site, he saw the pole hadn’t actually been moved. An excited buildings official e-mailed a colleague: “It is a smoking peashooter.”
At trial, Scarano testified that he tried to get his “knucklehead” client to deal with the obstructing pole, and his lawyer called the city’s repeated investigations a “vendetta.” Last March, though, the judge found that Scarano had engaged in “deliberate subterfuge” and actions “so deceptive that they call to mind out-and-out fraud.” He was given the maximum punishment — a total ban on filing any documents with the city. The sanction is currently stayed while Scarano fights it in a state appeals court, but if it’s upheld, the architect says he could be put out of business.
Many architects who know Scarano were mystified. “He’s the guy that they’re out to get, and when it comes down to charging him with something, they charge him with such a minor thing,” said Donald Weston, head of the urban-design committee of the A.I.A.’s Brooklyn chapter. To some, Scarano looks like a scapegoat for the city’s inconsistency and winking enforcement. But other architects view his violations as egregious. “I think you can’t legislate aesthetics,” said Chris McVoy, but he added, “there’s a certain public trust in these regulations whether you agree with them or not.”
Scarano’s firm has been devastated by the scandal and the housing bust. His fabulous office is now occupied by just 20 employees, he said, and even appreciative clients are reluctant to give him business, lest his name attract unwanted scrutiny. But he is hardly the only one who has suffered. Some residents of his lofts, who bought believing a broker’s assurance that they were two-bedrooms, have since learned that they count as one-bedrooms for appraisal, while others complain of faulty construction. “I am only the architect,” Scarano replies, saying he never had any control over how developers built or marketed his designs.
Scarano maintains that his reputation will ultimately rest on how his buildings hold up in the eyes of the public and critics. He revels in his inclusion in the A.I.A. Guide: if the mentions weren’t always positive, they did prove he mattered. Fran Leadon, the volume’s co-author and a City College professor, told me he struggled with how to describe Scarano’s unquestionable contributions to the cityscape. “I felt like it was a challenge to talk of them as being symptomatic of the extreme end of the building boom,” he said. “Not caring about history on a certain site, not really caring about the context, but caring very much about maximizing square footage and very much about buildings as commodities.”
Visiting Scarano’s Brooklyn projects today is like reliving the bubble’s deflation in a series of freeze-frame photos. There are completed high-rises along Fourth Avenue and a creamy white building in Bedford-Stuyvesant, where giant windows gave me a glimpse of a Saturday afternoon open house. Other buildings appeared to be ready but empty, or moldering unfinished. On the plywood that fenced in one forlorn Fort Greene construction site, a graffiti artist had spray-painted a frowning face and the word “Help.”
“A lot of people got destroyed,” said Alan Messner, a developer who built three Scarano buildings. Standing on a Williamsburg street corner, admiring the wood-paneled exterior of a condominium building called the Artisan, Messner told me he barely managed to survive after a lengthy buildings- department audit, which he credited Scarano for working through.
Messner’s building looked great, but many other projects managed to pass the review process only after extensive alterations and downsizing. Developers claim that the buildings department imposed its new standards arbitrarily. In some buildings, they were allowed to cut their mezzanines’ headroom to five feet by constructing flimsy wood platforms. (When my wife and I visited a Scarano building’s open house in 2009, a broker was quick to mention how easily such a platform could be removed.) Elsewhere, inspectors apparently accepted a veneer of plausible deniability. A mezzanine could still be a storage space, it seems, if it didn’t have a bathroom.
Hence, a builder might erect a mysterious wall.
Of course, in New York, space seldom goes to waste or waits long for rediscovery. Last year, Cody Brown and Kate Ray, recent New York University graduates and partners in a Web start-up, happened to find a rental in a Bushwick building by looking for the keyword “sunny” on Craigslist. It was maximalist Scarano: a three-story triplex with a mezzanine and several outdoor terraces. “It’s designed to make yuppies smile,” Brown told me when I visited recently. Originally conceived by the developer as luxury condos, the building was briefly leased to an ex-con who ran it as a halfway house, but the neighborhood protested, and now Brown and Ray were dividing the triplex with three other roommates, exploiting every bit of space. They were young and thrilled with the rent, and they weren’t sweating the details. “It’s like, beautiful things,” Ray said. “And then you start pulling the doorknob too hard, and it comes off.”
“There’s a secret room,” Brown told me, conspiratorially. Up on the mezzanine level, next to a pair of D.J.’s turntables, he knocked on a wall. It sounded hollow. I recounted the story of the hidden bathroom and left them to consider their options.
Down eight flights of stairs — no elevator — I walked past another building resident, a young guy in a hoodie, chatting up some women on the sidewalk. He was going to give a party, he said, and as they walked off, he shouted out how to find it: “I live in the penthouse!”