Thursday, February 04, 2010

Professor Wodinsky vs. Michael Kettenbach. Who you betting on?

When I was just a cub blogger, oh so many years ago, one of my first posts was about one John Walsh, who felt that he'd been denied the ability to purchase a co-op on Beacon Hill because the jut-jawed WASPs on the co-op board didn't want to have some Irish parvenue in their building.

The co-op board eventually settled some $2.2 M on Walsh for his troubles.

And, by the way, I walk by the scene of the Great 2006 Co-Op No-Irish-Need-Apply Massacree every day - it's a couple of doors down from where I live - and I believe that the unit in question is still unoccupied.

Perhaps the co-op board would be interested in letting it be used - at least on a temporary basis - by Brandeis Professor Jerome Wodinsky (aged 82) and his wife Bernadette.

Not that a Brandeis Professor would fit in any better in a bastion of WASPdom.

But the flat in question is ground-floor, which would save Professor Wodinsky his daily crawl up the dark and narrow back stairs of his building, just a few blocks away, on Commonwealth Ave.

Wodinsky has to crawl up the stairs because he's a) getting on in years; b) in poor health.

Oh, and because the couple who owns the rest of his condo building ripped out the elevator eight months ago, in what certainly appears to be an attempt to make life so miserable for the Wodinskys that they'd go, if not quietly, then just go.

I read about this in a couple of Brian McGrory columns in The Globe over the last several weeks, in which he recounted how Michael and Frances Kettenbach - she of the DeMoulas grocery chain fortune - had, over the past decade or so, bought up four of the five condos in a McKim, Mead & White building in Boston's Back Bay, with hopes of turning it into a single-family palais. (McGrory Part II is here.)

That would mean nudging the Wodinskys out. But the Wodinsksy weren't interesting in getting nudged out, because their condo has been home for over 30 years now, and you know how it is.

So, while the Kettenbachs nudged, the Wodinskys no-budged.

The Kettenbachs, however, kept nudging, and decided to go ahead with some ultra-expensive communal repairs, which, as 4/5's owners of the building, they can vote-in.  This put the Wodinskys on the hook for over $200K in improvements that they didn't want and couldn't afford. Including a replacement for the elevator. In addition to the new elevator - the old one's been out of commission for 8 months now - the Kettenbachs voted in all kinds of fixer-uppers:

When the roof leaked, rather than repair it, they put on a new one - even though it was only 10 years old. Leaky skylights? They got new ones of those as well. They completely replaced the building’s heating system and did a massive overhaul of the electrical system. Each job was within about a year of the one before it.

The Judge in the civil suit that the Wodinskys have going against the Kettenbach's has said that:

...it was “highly likely’’ that the Wodinskys would prove that the defendants wanted to own the entire building, “colluded to assess exorbitant Common Expenses,’’ purposely decommissioned the elevator to deprive the Wodinskys of its use, and applied pressure to force the Wodinskys to sell their unit at a below-market price.

She's given the Kettenbachs until May 1 to get the new elevator up and running.

Which still leaves poor Professor Wodinsky with three more months of crawling up the stairs.

Which got me thinking about that still-free, ground-level co-op on Beacon Street.

Especially when I learned that - enter stage left field - John Walsh is on the scene. Yes, John Walsh - he of the rejection letter from co-op chairman Jonathan Winthrop (yes, those Winthrops) that stated that Walsh “would not reasonably coalesce as a member of this cooperative community.’’

Walsh saw the first McGrory article, and contacted the Wodinskys, offering them "help from a legal, financial, and emotional perspective...Whatever it takes.’’

Well, whatever that means, but I wouldn't bet against the team of Wodinsky and Walsh.  Come on: a scrappy, self-made Irishman and an 82 year-old Brandeis psychology professor who specializes in animal behavior, and whose been forced to crawl up four flights of stairs for the past 8 months. Which side would you bet on?

“Mr. Kettenbach has to have a good place in his heart,’’ Walsh said. “I ask that he come forward, pay the fair value, own the whole building, and put this behind him.’’

Mr. Kettenbach, I believe this ball's in your court.

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