Office Owners and Cleaners Reach a Deal, Averting a Strike

The union representing some 22,000 cleaners and other workers at 1,500 New York City office buildings has reached a tentative deal with the building owners, averting a possible strike.

With the owners pressing for a permanent two-tiered wage system and demanding that workers contribute toward their health benefits, the union, Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union, had threatened to strike when the old contract expired, at midnight on New Year’s Eve.

But in negotiations that concluded late Friday night, the building owners and operators, represented by the Realty Advisory Board on Labor Relations, agreed to retain employer-paid health care coverage and to increase the workers’ wages by 5.6 percent over the four years of the new contract.

“We’re very happy with this agreement,” said Matt Nerzig, a spokesman for the union, which represents workers at buildings in all five boroughs. “It protects the lower-middle-class jobs, and that’s what we set out to do. It gets workers money over each of the four years; it helps them to keep pace with the cost of living in New York.”

The union did make a concession on the wage issue, however. The owners, claiming a high vacancy rate of office space and significantly lower rents since 2007, had fought for a two-tier wage system, under which new employees would be paid less than existing employees. Under Friday’s agreement, new workers would be paid 25 percent less than the standard salary for 21 months; their salaries would rise to full pay after 42 months, which was in line with agreements from past years, according to Mr. Nerzig.

Under the old contract, new workers were paid 20 percent less than the full salary for 30 months.

The agreement, which must still be ratified by the union members, would raise the average wage from about $47,000, increasing it incrementally over the last three of the contract’s four years. There would be no wage increase in 2012, though workers would receive a $600 bonus that year and a second one, of $500, in 2013.

Among other demands by the owners was the elimination of automatic contributions, in each paycheck, to the union’s political action fund. That demand was dropped.

The previous contract was signed in 2007, when the city’s real estate market was at its height, and in negotiations the owners cited the severe recession that followed in making their case for concessions. The market, however, has recovered substantially.

In a statement, Howard Rothschild, president of the Realty Advisory Board, praised the deal. “The agreement protects workers’ wages and benefits,” he said, “and provides crucial cost savings to building owners, who have been battered in this deep recession.”

Charles V. Bagli contributed reporting.

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Week in Pictures for Dec. 30

Here is a slide show of photographs from the past week in New York City and the region. Subjects include holiday window displays, the laying of an underwater power cable beneath the Hudson and jogging after dark in Central Park.

This weekend on “The New York Times Close Up,” an inside look at the most compelling articles in Sunday’s Times, Clyde Haberman will speak with The Times’s George Vecsey on his three decades of sports columns; Patrick Healy about a new production of “Porgy and Bess” and A.O. Scott on the Terrence Malick film “Tree of Life.” Also appearing, Tim Tompkins, president of the Times Square Alliance. Tune in at 10 p.m. Saturday or 10 a.m. Sunday on NY1 News to watch.

A sampling from the City Room blog is featured daily in the main print news section of The Times. You may also browse highlights from the blog and reader comments, read current New York headlines, become a City Room fan on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

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#trendingnyc: The Week on Twitter

There was a day, perhaps, a few short years ago, when some Christmas traditionalists might have shunned the annual broadcast of “The Yule Log,” whose flames and seasonal soundtrack have for decades entranced New Yorkers with good cheer, if not warmth.

But as Christmas arrived last week, the program seemed to resonate with an unlikely bunch of enthusiasts: the city’s Twitter users, often as restless and cynical as “The Yule Log” is cheery and monotonous.

They reminded one another to tune in, noting that the spectacle was available “on demand.” Boomer Esiason, the former New York Jets quarterback, wondered if the show could “get any better” in 3D. And College Humor’s Amir Blumenfeld took special precautions to ensure he did not miss a moment:

@jakeandamir Amir Blumenfeld

DVR-ing the end of Christmas Yule Log on TV. Nobody tell me how it ends. (I left at the part where the Yule Log was burning.)

Sun Dec 25 19:31:30 via Amir Blumenfeld

Some also reflected on their pilgrimages to midnight Mass, where one local comedian found inspiration. @KevinMcCaff wrote:

@KevinMcCaff Kevin McCaffrey

If I could stretch material like the priest doing midnight mass in Hinsdale, IL tonight, I’d have about 12 one-hour specials by now

Sun Dec 25 8:45:58 via Kevin McCaffrey

As Christmas passed, some residents turned to Boxing Day as a suitable follow-up. @twoheadedbah joked that he was “sick and tired” of the ubiquitous “Boxing Day music.” @MykeCole urged followers not to spoil his blissful ignorance of the day’s meaning, writing:

@MykeCole Myke Cole

Happy Boxing Day! I have no idea what this holiday is. Please don’t ruin it by telling me, because my current guess involves a kangaroo.

Mon Dec 26 12:35:00 via Myke Cole

Many users wrote about the year that was, writing posts with hashtags like #BestMemoryof2011, #WorstMemoryof2011, #Rewind2011 and #2011RemindedMe. Recalling the year’s deluge of extreme weather, @JesseAosta wrote:

The week also produced a spate of New Year’s resolutions. Users aspired to lose weight, buy American and get into a bar fight (they also, in great numbers, lobbied for Justin Bieber to win a Grammy Award). @ohquarrie focused her attention on her reading habits, posting:

Finally, as New Yorkers discussed arrangements for New Year’s Eve itself, one of the city’s most famous natives — and perhaps Twitter’s reigning queen — announced her plans. “I’m so looking forward to performing on NYE+dropping the Ball with Mayor Bloomberg!” @ladygaga wrote. “What an honor as a New Yorker!”

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Big Ticket | Sold for $10,800,000

A sprawling 4,600-square-foot, five-bedroom condominium overlooking Union Square that sold for $10.8 million was the most expensive transaction of the week, according to city records.

The eighth-floor apartment, at 15 Union Square West, has a 1,200-square-foot terrace, two fireplaces and floor-to-ceiling windows. It was combined from two units.

Shlomi Reuveni, the senior managing director of Brown Harris Stevens Select, which is marketing the building, said that there had been several deals to combine the already generously sized apartments in the building, and that several more were being discussed.

“We anticipated a demand for larger apartments,” he said, “and the apartments in the building are larger than most on the market.”

He said that each deal involving combined apartments had been worked out individually, with sometimes the buyer and sometimes the developer picking up the costs of renovation.

The modern iteration of 15 Union Square West, first home to Tiffany & Company in the 19th century, involved a mix of gut renovation, restoration and remodeling. Some of the original ornate detailing was restored, and the facade was sheathed in glass.

The project was conceived well before the market crashed, and sales stalled in 2008. But in recent months business has boomed, and the building is now 85 percent sold.

The apartment was bought anonymously through a trust, and Mr. Reuveni would not comment on details of the sale.

Big Ticket includes closed sales from the previous week, ending Wednesday.

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At a Brooklyn Music Store, Resolving to Adapt

A cheery holiday card from Tati and Gerry at Ansonia Records rests on the counter of Manny Rivera’s Brooklyn music store, hidden behind a pile of compact discs, domino sets and assorted tropical knick-knacks. It’s a nice, personal touch in a business that has long since lost it.

Side Street

David Gonzalez reports from corners of the city in words and pictures.

Forty two years ago – when Manny was born into the retail record business – companies like Ansonia could barely keep up with the demand for Latin music, from classic trios, romantic duos and swinging mambo bands. Then Willie, Hector, Johnny and Jerry led the Fania invasion, taking no prisoners and turning New York City into the spiritual home of salsa.

And for the true believers, these would be the high holidays. From Bushwick to the Bronx, New Year’s Eve would be jumping with house parties, with nonstop food from grandma, drinks from Puerto Rico and music from the corner record store. But with all the changes that swept over the neighborhood and the industry, Manny now wonders what the New Year will bring.

“People started selling bootlegs on the street and that hurt us,” he said. “Then the Internet came up and did to the bootleggers what the bootleggers did to us. Now you want some music, you get it online.”

Once, lines of customers snaked down the block from his store, Johnny Albino Music Center, which was founded by its namesake, the angel-voiced crooner of El Trio San Juan (who lived in Queens). Manny’s father, Papo, had a series of record stores on the block, which is tucked between Woodhull Hospital and La Marqueta de Williamsburg.

Manny grew up watching the record bins on the sidewalk and making sure nobody stole the goods. When he got older and learned to drive, he made regular runs to the record distributors that lined 10th Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen.  The business was built on personal relationships, and when he opened his first store in 1990, the distributors fronted him cases of records on credit.

“A new release would come out and I used to have to carry 300 of the same record,” he said.

Nowadays, the distributors have abandoned 10th Avenue. Manny now orders a lot of his music from Miami, though he complains that South Florida’s Cuban tastemakers can’ t quite peg the Brooklyn Latin market, which is big on Dominican bachata and Puerto Rican roots music.

A few days ago, a deliveryman came by with a shopping cart, which was three–quarters full with assorted discs. Outside, two tables flanked the entrance, selling $5 discs. Music blared from the speakers, while a few customers poked through the aisles.

Manny stood at the counter, in front of a mixing board and autographed glossies of Marc Anthony, La India and other singers. He leaned in as a customer approached.

“Do you have the Zacarias album I asked you about?” said one customer, looking for a popular Dominican singer.

“No,” said Manny. “But I have the other one.”

“I’ll take it,” said the customer. “If I can’t have pie, I’ll eat crackers.”

A woman walked in asking for an album.

“They don’t make albums,” Manny said.

He’s not sure how long CDs will still be made. Just in case, he has already started diversifying. When he bought the building that houses his store, he was able to expand his shop’s inventory with various musical instruments. Guitars hang from the walls, conga drums rest on shelves, while saxophones and accordions sit in display cases. He sells strings and instructional books, too, all of which helps to keep the business going.

A group of teenagers walked into the store and went straight to the back, admiring the guitars. Next year, Manny said, he may turn part of the space into a music school. It’s all part of his New Year’s resolution.

“I’m learning how to play, too,” he said. “I have to. If I know, it’ll help me sell guitars. My resolution is to perfect my guitar playing.”

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Violet the Red-Tailed Hawk Is Dead

Violet, the red-tailed hawk whose intimate family life in a nest overlooking Washington Square Park was chronicled on a live-streaming webcam, delighting more than a million viewers with the sacred spectacle of nature, died on Thursday. She was believed to be about 5 years old.

Violet had “heart-related complications” following surgery to amputate her necrotic foot, said Robert Horvath, a raptor rehabilitator based on Long Island. He said he was awaiting necropsy results.

The hawk had been suffering from chronic leg injuries for several weeks and was taken to North Massapequa, N.Y., for treatment on Saturday.

Last winter, Violet and her mate, Bobby, caught the attention of faculty and staff members at New York University, where the couple had created a nest on the 12th floor of Bobst Library, outside of the university’s president’s office.

The university allowed The New York Times to set up a live-streaming camera on the nest, and for two and a half months beginning in April, viewers of what came to be known as the Hawk Cam were mesmerized by a soap opera starring two urban hawks trying to raise a family in the middle of Manhattan.

“To be two feet away and look at their talons, and their eyes, and their beaks, and their beautiful feathers, it puts you in touch with the transcendent,” the university’s president, John Sexton, said the day the camera began broadcasting.

The birth of their offspring, whom viewers would later name Pip, was overshadowed by Violet’s declining health. The night Pip hatched, viewers noticed that Violet’s leg had become severely swollen after getting entangled in what appeared to be a fishing line.

A metal wildlife band that had been placed on her leg in 2006 and was wedged awkwardly on her shin appeared to exacerbate the situation. Wildlife experts and veterinarians were summoned by the university and the state to determine if it was possible to lure her away from the nest and treat her leg, but in the end, they determined it was too risky to intervene. They decided to let nature take its course.

But it wasn’t long before Violet’s leg problems worsened. In November, bloggers following the story recorded video of her right leg dangling uselessly behind her as she picked apart prey grasped in her left talon.

Mr. Horvath and his wife, Cathy, captured Violet in the park on Saturday and took her to their home for treatment. He said she underwent surgery to amputate her right foot on Thursday, but did not survive.

“She came through the surgery very well. She woke up and was sitting up fluffing her feathers,” Mr. Horvath wrote on the Facebook page for Wildlife in Need of Rescue and Rehabilitation, the nonprofit organization that the Horvaths run. “All of a sudden she had a heart attack. The vet did CPR on her for 20 minutes to no avail. X-rays showed that at some point after her right foot had deteriorated, her left femur was broken.”

Violet is survived by Pip and Bobby. Hawks move on quickly, and Bobby appears to have a new female companion. The two have been spotted in the nest of the 12th-floor ledge where Violet once lived.

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‘Like Home,’ if Home Is Mexico

Neighborhood Joint

A series of articles profiling favorite local haunts.
What’s your neighborhood joint?

Authentic Mexican restaurants have almost become an urban legend in New York. Transplants from California and Texas, to say nothing of Puebla and Mexico City, stalk the city’s cantinas, often with disappointing results, and trade tips about the best — places like Taqueria Tlaxcalli in Parkchester, a diverse expanse of urban blocks in the Bronx.

“Tlaxcalli” means “tortilla” in the Aztec language Nahuatl, and a hand-painted Aztec mural welcomes visitors to the crowded space. Aztec masks and paintings hang on the yellow walls, and cooks joke in the open kitchen as they rapidly grill and plate meat, fish and tortillas.

“I wanted people to see how the food was prepared,” Mauricio Gomez, the burly owner, said, “because, in our culture, that’s part of how to serve food.”

Read the full article.

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Brooklyn Towers, and a Debate Over Preservation

From the vantage, say, of Court and Joralemon Streets, Brooklyn feels like the big city it is. This is Downtown, with an upper-case D: tall buildings, crowded sidewalks, public monuments, intersecting lives — seasoned with urgency and purpose.

The Landmarks Preservation Commission thinks there’s a historic district here; the Borough Hall Skyscraper Historic District, in fact, which the commission called “the civic, cultural and commercial heart of Brooklyn for more than a century and a half,” when it designated the five-block area on Sept. 13. [The 57-page designation report, as a PDF file.]

Others, including the co-op board at 75 Livingston Street, which is arguably the most distinctive tower in the district, believe the commission has gone too far. They have appealed for relief to the City Council, which has until mid-February to uphold, modify or overturn the district designation. A hearing two weeks ago before the Subcommittee on Landmarks, Public Siting and Maritime Uses lasted more than three hours.

“We rarely have something this contentious,” said Councilman Brad Lander of Brooklyn, who heads the subcommittee. Though it is unusual for the Council to override the landmarks commission, Mr. Lander said on Tuesday, “I’m not sure where we will land.”

As drawn by the commission, the district runs along the west side of Court Street, between Livingston and Montague Streets, with one to four buildings on each side street. It also encompasses Brooklyn Borough Hall and the Brooklyn Municipal Building.

In its report, the commission said these 21 buildings “remain significant for their historic importance as the heart of Brooklyn’s downtown office district, as notable examples of the skyscraper and tall office building typologies and for their continuing existence in a neighborhood that has undergone radical changes.”

A textbook on early office tower development could be compiled from this little district alone, beginning with the robustly Romanesque 6-story Franklin Building (completed in 1887) at 186 Remsen Street; the 13-story Temple Bar Building (1901) at 44 Court Street, at one time the tallest in Brooklyn, whose Beaux-Arts twin copper cupolas are still a distinctive presence downtown; culminating in the exuberant 30-story former Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce Building (1928) at 75 Livingston Street, a tapering tower whose surprising Art Deco and neo-Gothic touches give it a visual interest “equal to that of any skyscraper in Greater New York,” the commission said.

Adding interest is the fact that this was the first large-scale commission for the architect Abraham J. Simberg (1892-1981), who had immigrated from Ukraine at the turn of the century and had previously designed small apartment houses on Ocean Parkway and elsewhere in Brooklyn.

Given its inherent quality and the evident care that has gone into its maintenance in recent decades, 75 Livingston Street would seem to be the most obvious building in the district for designation.

But the co-op board argues that its careful stewardship of the building ought to exempt it from designation and the imposition of a regulatory regimen that could only increase costs.

“We’ve spent a lot of money in trying to voluntarily comply with the spirit of landmarking,” said Ellen Murphy, the president of the board. She told Mr. Lander’s subcommittee that the board had already invested more than $6 million to restore the exterior after prior neglect stretching back 50 years and that the total of special assessments had averaged $62,000 for each apartment.

“We don’t feel we’re getting any real recognition for what we’ve done over 25 years,” Ms. Murphy said in a subsequent telephone interview. “Voluntary compliance doesn’t get you a ‘thank you’ from the city, it gets you a surcharge.”

But the commission is concerned about the future, as well as the past. “We recognize and very much appreciate that the current board is an excellent steward of its remarkable building,” said Elisabeth de Bourbon, a spokeswoman for the commission, “but there’s no guarantee its successors will be as conscientious and preservation-minded.”

Councilman Lander acknowledged the conundrum. “The co-op board of that building is committed to its preservation,” he said. “There’s broad agreement that it’s worth preserving. The question is — what are the right tools to do it?”

The Real Estate Board of New York has urged the Council to overturn the district entirely, citing — among other objections — the inclusion of buildings like 200 Montague Street, which was completed in 1960 and “dramatically altered” in 2006 with a new facade. “There is absolutely no public purpose in landmarking buildings of this nature,” the board said in a statement.

Owners took differing tacks at the hearing. Mr. Lander said his favorite moment was when a representative of 16 Court Street asked the council to carve it out of the district. When he inquired about the rationale, he was told that the building next door, 26 Court Street, was sufficiently similar in size and style that the council needed to uphold the designation of only one.

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Criticism of Undercover Operation Aimed at Smartphone Thefts

To combat a surge in the theft of handheld electronic devices, which contributed to a high rate of grand larcenies in the city this year, the Police Department devised Operation Take Back, aimed at anyone seeking a stolen iPhone or iPad.

According to a Dec. 16 Police Department news release, undercover officers, working in all five boroughs, arrested 141 people who had “eagerly” bought what the officers were peddling as stolen goods at discounted prices. Most of the transactions were made inside businesses, including places suspected of receiving stolen electronics in the past, though “a few of the sales took place on street corners.”

Six days later, Councilman Vincent J. Gentile questioned the nature of the police initiative and called for its review in a two-page letter to Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly. While Mr. Gentile lauded the effort to crack down on locations where stolen goods are sold, he wrote that he had heard of instances in which officers were “openly soliciting people on the street by enticing them to buy the goods at a reduced price and then arresting the individual on the street if any negotiation or transaction transpired.”

Mr. Gentile, a Democrat whose Brooklyn district includes Bath Beach and parts of Bensonhurst, described the account of a teenager who was arrested after he left a library and offered money to a person he thought was homeless, but who was actually an undercover officer.

“Trying to root out merchants who are known dealers in stolen electronics is one matter; luring unsuspecting and otherwise law-abiding teenagers to buy goods from undercover officers is another matter entirely,” Mr. Gentile wrote. “The former, I believe, is a proper police function and within the realm of your stated purposes of Operation Take Back. The latter is a picture of police personnel hellbent on racking up arrest numbers regardless of the consequences to those who were approached and solicited on the street.”

Nowhere in Mr. Gentile’s letter does the word entrapment appear. And it is typically difficult for anyone to successfully use entrapment as a defense in court. A defendant must usually show that the police induced or encouraged them to act criminally – and did not just offer an opportunity to commit a crime.

But some defense lawyers view some of the recent moves by the police as entrapment and encourage anyone affected to seek a lawyer’s help.

Paul J. Browne, the Police Department’s chief spokesman, said he did not believe the commissioner had yet had an opportunity to reply to the councilman.

In the case of the teenager’s arrest described by Mr. Gentile, Mr. Browne said the plainclothes officer involved had a script he was working from that indicated he had just stolen the electronic device from an Apple store and wanted to get rid of it for an inexpensive price.

“It wasn’t that he was just acting homeless and getting sympathy for himself,” Mr. Browne said. “There was a script involved and they have what that person arrested then said, in response to that, which was, he offered him a price for it.”

As part of the operation, the police made 42 arrests in Brooklyn.

Mr. Gentile also sent a copy of his letter to Mr. Kelly to Charles J. Hynes, the Brooklyn district attorney. Asked about the issue on Tuesday, a Hynes spokesman said that the office had spoken with Mr. Gentile. The spokesman said, “Regarding the issue of entrapment, if the attorney for an arrested defendant raises the issue, we will review and make a decision.”

New Deputy Chief in East New York

Officers in the 75th Precinct in East New York have been weighed down with sadness over the Dec, 12 shooting death of one of their own, Peter J. Figoski. On Friday, their commander, Jeffrey Maddrey, received a promotion, and praise from Mr. Kelly.

“Chief Maddrey’s promotion is well-deserved, but bittersweet given its close proximity to the vicious murder of one of his most senior officers,” Mr. Kelly said.

Chief Maddrey was elevated from the rank of inspector to deputy chief at a ceremony at One Police Plaza.

From a podium before a packed auditorium, Mr. Kelly said of Chief Maddrey: “His leadership has been instrumental in helping the command and the community to contend with the tragedy of Detective Figoski’s death. Over the past two years, his skill has been the key to preserving the historic gains made in crime-fighting in East New York. Chief Maddrey enjoyed similar success as the leader of another busy command, Brooklyn’s 73rd precinct, where overall crime fell by more than 5 percent and murders fell by 25 percent during his tenure. He also commanded the Brooklyn South Task Force and served as executive officer of the 60th, 70th, and 72nd precincts.”

The promotion brought something else to light. Other than Chief Maddrey, there are no other current commanding officers – among all the 76 precincts of the New York Police Department – to be ranked as high as a deputy chief, according to Roy T. Richter, the leader of the Captains Endowment Association.

“Deputy Chief Maddrey is well-respected by his peers and ranking members of the Police Department,” Mr. Richter said. “The 75th Precinct is considered one of the most challenging assignments for a commanding officer in the N.Y.P.D.”

Most precinct commanders are inspectors, or deputy inspectors. One police official said the new chief could soon be headed to a new assignment that would recognize his higher rank. “He’s not going to stay precinct commander, as a deputy chief, forever,” the official said.

Mr. Richter noted that another commander, Mike Marino, had also been promoted to the rank of deputy chief as the commander of the 75th Precinct, and served in that role for more than a year and a half before moving on.

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