02/10/2022

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NYC to demolish landmark building owned by secret millionaire ‘bag lady’

NYC to demolish landmark building owned by secret millionaire ‘bag lady’

A millionaire New Yorker known for moonlighting as a can collector neglected one of her Manhattan properties for nearly a decade, and now the city is set to demolish the landmark-protected townhouse, The Post has learned.

But critics say the owner is crazy like a fox — and set to make millions of dollars over the demolition.

Lisa Fiekowsky, 71, became known as a quirky bag lady who drove around her Brooklyn neighborhood in a graffiti-covered, trash-filled clunker — while secretly holding more than $8 million in Manhattan real estate.

NYC to demolish landmark building owned by secret millionaire ‘bag lady’
The damage includes a large hole in the roof, missing windows, partially collapsed interior floors, a rusted cornice and water damage.
Close-up photo of empty window frame in building revealing holes in the building roof.
The city sued Lisa Fiekowsky for failing to upkeep the landmarked building in 2019 and won the case the next year.

City officials recently told The Post that Fiekowsky is now in their crosshairs for leaving one of her Harlem properties in such poor shape that the 125-year-old building in the Sugar Hill Historic District is unsafe and must be demolished.

The front door of a building is partially boarded up and has signage posted on it as litter sits on the doorstep and a sidewalk shed is erected.
The city is set to demolish a landmarked, 125-year-old building at 451 Convent Ave. after owner Lisa Fiekowski let it fall into disrepair.
Seth Gottfried

The site has racked up thousands of dollars in fines, countless violations and a city lawsuit over a nine-year period, prompting the Buildings Department to take matters into its own hands and plan to level the historic brick building at 451 Convent Ave.

While the building has its landmark protection, the city has deemed it “a life-safety threat to the public and neighboring occupied buildings.”

The abandoned building — which is attached to four nearly identical rowhouses all built in 1897 — has suffered from a large hole in its roof, partially collapsed interior floors, prolonged water damage, missing windows, a rusted cornice and a raccoon infestation, according to building records and court filings.

It was broken into by homeless people seeking refuge and has been used as a haven for drug use, according to complaints logged as recently as last month.

Owners of landmarked buildings are required by law to maintain the properties in good condition, which the city says Fiekowsky has failed to do time and time again.

Fiekowsky, who resides in Brooklyn and purchased the Harlem rowhouse in 2000, has largely ignored dozens of requests from the Landmarks Preservation Commission and Buildings Department — dating back to 2013 — to fix the damage or face demolition and fines.

City agencies said the eccentric landlord — who owns two additional landmarked Harlem properties — hasn’t paid a dime of the thousands of dollars worth of fines she’s racked up and has had zero actual work done to repair the four-story building.

She has only filed a few work permits during the nine years the city has been begging her to make repairs to the landmarked rowhouse, records show. The work permits were eventually revoked each time for being incomplete.

Red-haired, older woman sits behind wheel of graffitied 1993 Toyota Camry with trash bags, a suitcase, a hat and other items piled high in the seat next to her.
Lisa Fiekowsky, pictured here in 2018, became known as her neighborhood bag lady who drove around a graffiti-covered, trash-filled clunker — while secretly holding more than $8 million in Manhattan real estate.
Gabriella Bass

The self-described “old-fashioned bohemian” blamed lack of building access and a raccoon infestation as reasons why she’s stalled over the years, court records show. She said the damages stemmed from a fire that leveled the building next door years ago.

The Landmarks Preservation Commission sued Fiekowsky in 2019 over her failure to make any repairs and threatened fines of up to $5,000 per day.

A judge ultimately sided with the commission a year later, ruling that the Brooklyn resident owed the city damages.

“After several years of working to get the owner of 451 Convent Avenue to voluntarily make repairs, including many violations and an order from the LPC Chair, LPC brought a ‘demolition by neglect’ lawsuit seeking a court order to compel repairs and financial penalties,” a LPC rep said in a statement to The Post. “The judge in that case ruled against the owner.”

But the court ruling didn’t push Fiekowsky to make repairs.

Now, two years later, the DOB made the call to knock down the landmarked rowhouse, according to paperwork filed July 13.

A city-contracted crew stopped by the site earlier this month to disconnect the sewer and water lines to prepare for demolition.

Four attached homes with a sidewalk shed erected outside one.
The Renaissance Revival-style building was given landmarked designation in 2001 as part of the Sugar Hill Historic District, which was home to “a significant group of black professionals” in the 1930s and 1940s.
Seth Gottfried

But neighbors on Convent Avenue are upset the the rowhouse will be torn down despite its landmarked protection — and by none other than the city itself.

“If [the demolition] goes ahead without a light being shown on it, a cynical millionaire will make millions more, and an irreplaceable city gem will be lost forever,” said Projjal Dutta, who lives next to the decrepit building and is a top MTA official.

“She basically wants this building gone because I think the land is going to be much more lucrative to her,” Dutta speculated. “It’s kind of a cynical view of things, but I think that’s what’s going on.”

Along with the four attached rowhouses, 451 Convent Ave. was given landmark designation in 2001 as part of the Sugar Hill Historic District for its architecture and history.

The Renaissance Revival-style building features decorative brickwork and limestone trim and was deemed architecturally significant for the area and time period.

The Sugar Hill neighborhood gained prominence in the 1930s and 1940s when “a significant group of Black professionals, active in law, business, literature, music and art,” lived there, according to Landmarks Preservation Commission documents.

Dutta, the MTA’s director of sustainability, said he fell in love with the buildings and their history after learning about the former owner of his own landmarked home.

It belonged to a black political activist named Helen Taylor — who broke color barriers at the Brooklyn Navy Yard where she worked as a draftsman. She lived in the home up until her death in 2013 at age 91.

Taylor spent her final years fighting to get the owners of the buildings next door to hers — including Fiekowsky — to fix up the properties, according to her family.

“She was still making calls from her hospital bed about getting her home on Convent Avenue fixed and trying to get the developers who owned the neighboring properties to fix theirs,” Taylor’s niece, Marsha Saldanha, told the Amsterdam News after her death. “She was fighting the whole time. She just didn’t want to go.”

Dutta, a registered architect, said two buildings in the attached row were in worse condition than 451 Convent when he first moved into his home, which he renovated himself, in 2014.

Both of those buildings were saved by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development through a partnership with the nonprofit Ecumenical Community Development Organization. The Harlem-based organization restored the buildings and then sold them to civil servants in 2020, according to Dutta and property records.

“Two buildings built by the same developer as a part of the same block have been restored to good health from worse condition … so it’s doable, and the proof of that is just a few feet away,” Dutta said.

Dutta believes the building at 451 is still structurally sound given its compact size and can and should be saved.

“I don’t think that there is any [danger] of imminent collapse,” he said.

If Fiekowsky won’t make repairs, the city should find someone who will, he added.

Attached townhouses sit next to an empty lot on a tree-lined block.
A neighbor believes Lisa Fiekowsky actually wants her building to be demolished so that she can sell the empty plot of land to make more money.

Dutta noted that private owners are prevented from demolishing buildings with landmark status and that Fiekowsky stands to make a hefty sum were she to sell the land 451 sits on, which is located next to an empty lot.

He said the septuagenarian — who did stints as a marketing analyst at AT&T and briefly as a stockbroker — is smarter and more financially savvy than her can-collecting, trash-hoarding, disheveled persona.

“That aura that she has is, I think, at least in some part cultivated,” he said, given her success in the New York City real-estate market.

Fiekowsky, who holds a master’s in business administration from Chicago University, is the daughter of high-flying Washington, DC, economists. Her father was the chief of economics for the Treasury Department’s Office of Tax Analysis, and her mother traveled the globe negotiating trade deals for the Department of Labor.

Despite her well-off upbringing, Fiekowsky, who lives in a $1 million co-op adjacent to Prospect Park, is known for can-collecting and hoarding trash in her properties and her 1993 Toyota Camry — angering neighbors both in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

Her two additional landmarked Harlem buildings — at 47 and 60 Hamilton Terrace — have also been sitting empty and are in varying states of decay.

The townhouse at 47 Hamilton Terrace has an open Buildings violation from 2020 for cracks in its exterior walls, and neighbors of the two brownstones have complained of rat infestations, foul odors and piles of garbage and clothing at the properties for several years, DOB records show.

Despite the neglect, one of the buildings has an estimated market value of more than $4 million, according to a city assessment.

Fiekowsky claimed she planned on fixing up her dilapidated Harlem properties in a 2018 interview with The Post, but no work has been done.

“In New York, you’re always under renovation because there’s always stuff the city is requiring you to do,” she said at the time.

A year later, she told The Post she’s been too busy to make the repairs.

Woman sits behind wheel of graffitied 1993 Toyota Camry with trash bags, a suitcase, a hat and other items piled high all around her.
Lisa Fiekowsky’s other two Harlem properties, which are both landmarked as well, also are abandoned and in ill-repair.
Gabriella Bass

Fiekowsky didn’t return recent phone or email requests for comment from The Post. A lawyer for her also did not return messages.

The DOB said there is not set demolition date yet, but Dutta said he spotted work crews at Fiekowsky’s property Aug. 10. A worker said they were there to disconnect sewer and water lines.

“I think financially I’ll probably be better off with a new building [at the property] with multiple units that will sell or rent for a lot of money — that will probably drive my property value up,” Dutta said of 451 Convent, which is at the end of the row of homes and whose demolition could occur without majorly impacting the other properties.

“But I do feel, nonetheless, that this is a beautiful, beautiful block … and these might well be the very last single-family homes built in that pre-war mold in Manhattan, and to see one of them be demolished is a real pity.”