145 W. 21st Realty LLC v. First West 21st Street LLC, New York County Index No. 653241/2012

New York County Supreme Court Justice Kelly O’Neil Levy has issued a decision adding to the understanding of the party wall rules. In 145 W. 21st Realty LLC v. First West 21st Street LLC, Justice O’Neal Levy granted the defendant summary judgment dismissing causes of action sounding in conversion/encroachment, trespass, and negligence. In 145 W. 21st Realty v. First West 21st Street LLC, the plaintiff and defendant shared a party wall. The defendant, however, demolished its building to redevelop its property. When redeveloping, rather than tie into the party wall, the defendant built an independent wall and extended the height of its building 135 feet above the rooftop of the plaintiff’s adjoining building.

The plaintiff alleged that defendants new building contained an independent wall that cantilevered over the party wall. It was undisputed that the defendant had not crossed the property line. The plaintiff’s essential complaint was that because of the defendant’s redevelopment the plaintiff could not increase the height of its building without incurring the significant expense of installing a new supporting wall inside its own property or effectively demolishing its own building and rebuilding entirely within its own lot, thereby losing square footage.

In granting the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, Justice O’Neil Levy wrote that “Where a party wall runs directly over the property line between two parcels each of the two adjoining owners of a party wall owns in severalty so much of the wall as stands upon his own lot, each having an easement in the other strip for purposes of supporting his own building.” Justice O’Neil Levy continued that, “Either adjacent owner may increase the height of a party wall when it can be done without injury to the adjoining building, the wall is of sufficient strength to safely bear the addition, and the addition can be used by both owners to increase the height of their own building.”

But Justice O’Neil Levy distinguished cases of increasing the height of the party wall from cases where an adjoining building is demolished and an independent wall is installed. The court wrote, “Where one adjoining owner demolishes its building, however, this puts an end to the necessity of support on its side of the building.” Finally, Justice O’Neil Levy concluded that an “owner may use its side of the wall for its own commercial use so long as none of its structures compromise the integrity of the wall or cross the property line.”

The lesson of 145 W. 21st Realty LLC v. First West 21st Street LLC is that the advantages conferred by party wall structures may not last forever. An adjoining property owner need not consider its neighbor’s interests if it elects to redevelop its property so that it no longer needs the support of a party wall.