Just getting the One Ardmore apartments built was an epic struggle that spanned more than a decade.
Lower Merion traditionalists called the building architecturally overwhelming. Neighbors fought the state’s $10.5 million grant all the way to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court — and lost.
Finally, last spring, the $58 million, 110-unit luxury apartment building opened in downtown Ardmore, just off Lancaster Avenue. Built by Philadelphia developer Carl Dranoff, it has been heralded as a catalyst for Main Line revitalization that could draw new businesses and development.
“It has vision,” former Gov. Ed Rendell said at the April 2019 ribbon cutting, which was also attended by Gov. Tom Wolf and local officials.
But One Ardmore, where the monthly rent exceeds $3,000, is now facing yet another unforeseen hurdle: complaints about mold and poor air quality that a handful of residents say has sickened them and, in some cases, forced them to leave.
The allegations have triggered extended debates on Facebook and the Nextdoor app. The company that owns the building calls the negative posts “misinformation” based on “unfounded and unscientific claims.”
When Hannah Wood, a 24-year-old massage therapist, moved into the building last May with her fiancé, “it was like the perfect setup,” she said. They were among the first tenants of the apartments, built just five minutes from her workplace.
But Wood soon started suffering from unusually bad allergies. She had a runny nose for months. When she went into the bedroom, she’d get asthma attacks. Her doctor prescribed a steroid inhaler. A week before Christmas, the couple left the building.
“I couldn’t live there,” she said. “We didn’t want to move.”
Upon completion last April, One Ardmore became the property of Apartment Investment & Management Co. (Aimco), a Denver-based company that had also acquired other Dranoff properties in Philadelphia.
In a Jan. 29 letter to residents and subsequent interviews with The Inquirer, Aimco officials have insisted that there is no mold in the building. Inspections by two outside consultants did not detect any excess moisture or other problems that would make mold grow.
“We have found no issues in any of the apartments,” said Peter Cappel, Aimco’s vice president of environmental health and safety. He said corridors and other common areas in the 282,000-square-foot building have also been inspected.
“I don’t think it’s a legitimate concern,” Cappel said of the mold complaints. “I think we’ve ruled that out. I’m confident it’s a nonissue.”
Video taken inside the building last month showed water pouring down from the roof onto a stairwell. Cappel said that it was a leak due to heavy rain, and that the water was only coming into contact with metal and other materials that wouldn’t support mold growth.
The concerns about potentially moldy air at One Ardmore became public in January, when former resident Matthew Amici wrote on Facebook and other social media platforms that soon after moving there with his wife in August, he began experiencing headaches, rashes, and respiratory problems. He said his doctor suggested he test their apartment for mold, and a mold consultant he hired determined that the structure was “uninhabitable.”
“We said, ‘OK. We got to get the hell out of here,’” said Amici, 52, a sales consultant. They moved out on New Year’s Eve.
Matthew Solomon, an attorney representing Amici, said he is aware of five other current or former residents who have complained of symptoms that could be due to mold “or some type of exposure to something in the building.” The tests they ordered have shown varying levels of mold, he said.
“It’s not being addressed properly, and it’s a problem,” Solomon said. “If there is mold in the building and it’s allowed to grow and is not properly remediated, it’s going to get worse.”
But testing for mold can be tricky. Lance Eisen, chief operating officer of the National Organization of Remediators and Mold Inspectors, said certain testing methods are sometimes selected based on the client’s desired outcome.
“It depends on what you’re trying to show,” Eisen said. “Or not show.”
The firm that Amici hired used the ultrasensitive Environmental Relative Moldiness Index (ERMI), which is a research tool developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and is not recommended for residential testing.
Cristina Schulingkamp, an environmental engineer and indoor-air expert at the EPA’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Office, said the ERMI test will almost always pick up mold spores because they are present in both indoor and outdoor air.
“EMRI only indicates the presence of mold spores, and not necessarily that there is a mold problem,” she said.
Schulingkamp said a visual inspection is usually the quickest way to locate the cause of a mold problem. But she and other experts acknowledge that those inspections are not always definitive and could also fail to detect mold.
Michael Menz, one of the consultants hired by Aimco to inspect the building, said his firm performed visual inspections and used a moisture meter and infrared camera, finding nothing abnormal.
“Everything was fine,” he said.
Aimco’s consultants did not analyze any air or surface for mold, Cappel said.
Two other residents interviewed by The Inquirer — including one who said he is highly allergic to mold and lives near Amici’s former unit — said they had experienced no health issues.
Dranoff, whose firm developed the property, did not respond to a request for comment.
Amici and Wood said they are considering their legal options. For leaving their apartments early, Aimco demanded payment of thousands of dollars in fees.
“They have basically been telling the other tenants that we’re conspiracy theorists,” Wood said.
Amici said follow-up tests showed high levels of mold in his blood. He said he’s still experiencing respiratory and sinus problems, as well as fatigue and anxiety, which he believes were caused by mold exposure.
“We’re not looking to say anyone is a liar or anything, but it’s people’s health,” said Solomon, his attorney. “If a tenant comes to you with what clearly is a sickness, don’t send them a $17,000 early termination fee. This is a publicly traded corporation, and they’re really not treating these residents properly.”
In a statement Tuesday afternoon, Aimco described the complaints as a “landlord-tenant issue that is currently in litigation.”
“Aimco takes any claims of mold very seriously and each resident signs a lease addendum requiring them to contact us immediately if they suspect any problems,” the statement said. “Even though required by their lease, the residents in question never made a complaint to our property management team about mold or any other air quality concerns; they informed us of their concerns only following false claims online and discredited testing using a methodology not approved by the EPA.”
Eisen, of the National Organization of Remediators and Mold Inspectors, said the fact that One Ardmore, with its fresh brick façade and young vines winding up the side, is less than a year old doesn’t mean that it’s immune from air-quality issues. Mold can grow in a matter of days, he said.
Nor is he surprised that Aimco and the former residents have hired consultants that reached opposite conclusions, given the lack of licensing requirements for mold assessment and remediation.
“It depends on the brush you’re using and what kind of picture you’re painting,” Eisen said of mold testing. “It’s a very deep rabbit hole.”