That Sinking Feeling

When Matt and Sarah Adess moved into their Wicker Park condo in 2000, they didn’t realize they were buying intoa six-year nightmare. A cautionary tale about new construction gone terribly bad

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Like so many other young would-be homeowners in Chicago’s febrile real-estate market of the past decade, Matt and Sarah Adess hoped to find both a place to live and a high-performance investment. It was the summer of 2000 and the couple, both 24 years old, wanted something that “was an attractive space and a steppingstone to whatever the future was going to bring us,” recalls Matt Adess, who was studying at Loyola University Medical Center with an eye toward one day starting an oncology practice.

That’s why the pair were delighted to find the nearly completed four-story red-brick building on the southwest corner of North Avenue and Leavitt Street in super-hot Wicker Park. They had seen “a lot of cookie cutters,” says Sarah Adess, who was teaching in a preschool at the time, but this building had distinctive floor plans. With expansive living spaces on the main floor, a partial loft above, and rooftop decks, it combined elements of layouts used in townhouses, lofts, and single-family homes.

And the location, a few blocks west of the hip North-Milwaukee-Damen intersection, suggested that this would be a smart place to buy. So in October 2000, the couple paid $457,500 for one of the building’s four three-bedroom condos. “We stretched,” Matt Adess says. Today, appraisers tell them, condos with about the same square footage, location, and finishes would be worth about $707,500, a 55 percent increase.

Those other condos, however, don’t have four-inch-wide cracks running along walls throughout the unit. Or a granite fireplace mantel that tilted about 30 degrees from one side to the other before finally snapping under the strain. Or a ten-foot-long fissure in the parapet facing the street. Or nails that pop out of walls as parts of the building slowly sink deeper into the unstable soil.

In May, the Adesses sold their condo back to the builder, Krzystof Karbowski of MCM Realty, for their original purchase price plus about enough to cover the $70,000 they paid in special assessments to try to shore up the building. But the Adesses say the settlement did not cover the roughly $50,000 they spent to rent another place after structural engineers (hired by the condo association) cautioned them to get out of the building on Leavitt last summer (they had to continue paying the condo’s mortgage while renting elsewhere). Nor did it cover the lost appreciation on their investment, or repay them for nearly five years of worrying whether the building would fall down around them. At one point, reports Matt Adess, the engineers “said they didn’t know if the loft was still stably attached to the rest of the building. It could fall down on the floor below it.”

The structural engineers “told us they could no longer guarantee our safety if we stayed there,” says Sarah Adess.

In the building frenzy that has characterized the renaissance of many Chicago neighborhoods, thousands of new houses, condos, and other residential spaces have gone up. Most have proved to be structurally sound, if not always as attractive as neighbors would like. And while most builders follow through on their city-approved plans, others opt to make unapproved changes “fairly often,” says Peter Scales, spokesman for Chicago’s Department of Buildings, though he couldn’t provide a precise number as to how often that occurred. “We always have a caseload,” says Scales.

This structure, at 1548-54 North Leavitt Street, is one of those exceptions, a building resting on unsteady soil and lacking a support column for one of four major load-bearing beams. That column was in the construction plan approved by the city, but it was never installed, leaving unsupported approximately 19 feet in the middle of that load-bearing beam. Eventually, the building started to collapse on itself.

It’s not clear who in the chain of contractors decided to place the building on weak soil and go without the column. Jake Rosenberg, the former owner of the southernmost condo (the one with the least damage), thinks Karbowski approved both decisions as “shortcuts to keep his cost down.” Mark Roth, the condo owners’ attorney, argues that Karbowski was inexperienced in construction, and that he “didn’t put somebody in place who micromanages every detail of the job, makes sure everything- everything-is done exactly as it has to be done.”

Remarks made by Karbowski during his deposition reveal that the developer indeed had only the slightest familiarity with the plans for the project, that his technical skills were minimal, and that he had little to do with the day-to-day operation of the project (or, apparently, of his company itself). While acknowledging that he selected the subcontractors-and that he had no procedure in place to monitor their competency-Karbowski insisted that it was the responsibility of the subcontractors to inspect their own work and to get the necessary permits approved. “We don’t do that,” said Karbowski in his deposition.

“A lot of bad construction results from bad supervision,” says Michael Sher, a Chicago attorney who has handled many construction-related cases but was not involved with this one. “If you’re in a hot market where [you want] to get the product to market soon, there’s pressure to get the job done as quickly as you can.”

The story starts in 1998, when Krzystof Karbowski bought the empty lot at North and Leavitt; someone had long since taken down the building that had previously stood there. Mark Roth suspects that the rubble from the old building was pushed into the cavity of the old basement and then filled over. It’s not clear whether anyone ever tested to determine the soil’s ability to hold a new building. (The city requires that ground that will hold a new residential building must have a load-bearing capacity of 4,000 pounds per square foot, though no one from the city verifies the soil’s actual load-bearing capacity before approving plans.) Karbowski bought the lot and plans for the building as a package from another developer who had intended to build there. The plans, drawn by the architect John Hanna (who says he dealt only with the first developer of the project), clearly call for the support column that was never installed.

Roth says some aspects of the building’s construction “indicate he [Karbowski] did not have a basic understanding of practices in the construction industry.” (In his deposition, Karbowski admitted that he had no experience in reading architectural drawings.) Among the problems: several floors were not properly fastened to the north and south walls of the building. That did not contribute to the cracking, but “that’s indicative that [Karbowski] was using day laborers who didn’t know how it’s done, and he didn’t have anyone telling them,” Roth says.