York Ave. Tenants Fight Plan to De-landmark Building

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By Megan Finnegan

Most Upper East Siders are familiar with landmarking, the process of certifying a building with historical designation. What many aren”t aware of are the ways an owner can fight to de-landmark a building, and that”s what is happening at 429 E. 64th St., and 430 E. 65th St., two buildings better known as part of the City and Suburban First Avenue Estates.

Last year, the Stahl York Avenue Company, which owns the buildings, sued the City of New York to overturn the landmark status for those two addresses. In June, an appellate court upheld a lower court”s decision to dismiss Stahl”s petition to have the landmark status rescinded. The court found LPC”s designation of the buildings was appropriate. But Stahl is still battling to work around the landmark status, now through the filing of a hardship application requesting permission to demolish the buildings, in a fight that goes back decades, over a history that stretches almost a century.

Bird's-eye view of the apartment building at 429 E. 64th St. that Stahl York Avenue Company is attempting to have de-landmarked so they can build a new high-rise. Photo by Andrew Schwartz

Stahl”s main contention is that they can”t make a reasonable return of at least 6 percent on the properties, citing the small size of the apartments and lack of amenities in the buildings. Through their attorney, Stahl declined to comment for this story.

“They’re saying we have wooden kitchen counter tops, that we have tiny little tubs that are 48 inches, that we don”t have microwaves,” said Monica McLaughlin, a lawyer who has lived in the building for 20 years. She said that she’s read Stahl’s application and documentation, and claims that much of it is untrue.

“He’s presenting these apartments as complete hovels that need millions of dollars of work before normal people will live in them. It’s a pretty insulting document,” said McLaughlin. “He’s saying that the apartments are inferior, that they can’t be expanded or made bigger, which is ridiculous.”

Janet Nonamaker has lived in one of the buildings for 33 years. She is one of three tenants occupying one of the sections of apartments, and the entire complex has a 50 percent vacancy rate. Walking around the perimeter of the buildings, one can peer into open windows and see empty apartments, cabinet doors askew, broken fixtures, dust and debris collecting everywhere. Nonamaker claims that the landlord is slow to repair the common areas and the occupied apartments; she feels that they are biding their time until they can demolish the buildings and start from scratch.

“When they build their 20-story glass tower, there’s not going to be anything affordable,” said Nonamaker. “I’m retired. I live on a pension and Social Security. What am I going to do?” While Stahl is legally required to offer rent-regulated tenants comparable apartments in a new building, they would no longer be regulated.

The battle over the building isn’t just about rents; it’s also about preserving city history. The First Avenue Estate was built between 1898 and 1915, during a time when city philanthropists began to address the appalling conditions of the tenement buildings in which many poor, working families lived. City and Suburban was a privately financed – Cornelius Vanderbilt was among the high-profile investors –  limited-dividend company that set out to provide the model for building low-cost, higher-quality living spaces for working class families. According to an LPC report from 1990, the company “voluntarily agreed to limit their profits in order to provide wage earners with comfortable, safe, hygienic, well-maintained housing at market rates… In its projects City and Suburban emphasized large-scale development likening itself to a chain store, able to offer quality goods at bargain prices because of large-scale organization.”

The architect for the project, Philip H. Ohm, based his design on the concept of the light court tenement, first proposed by architect Enest Flagg, which describes the use of windows in each room as well as the organization around a central open court and a wide entryway. These buildings stood in stark contrast to the squalid conditions offered by railroad-style flats, in which only the front and back rooms (each room would house an entire family) had access to air and light.

“These apartments are not fancy, but they’re livable,” said Elizabeth McCracken, who lived in one for 23 years and now lives across the street, working with Friends of First Avenue Estates to help preserve the buildings. “They have amenities that modern apartments don’t have. Every room had a window, allowing for light and air.”

Fast forward to 1990, when LPC designated the entire block as landmarks, and also bestowed landmark status on another City and Suburban Development, the York Avenue Estates at East 78th Street. But just weeks before it legally died on September 1 of that year, the Board of Estimates, the precursor to the City Council, voted in the middle of the night to overturn LPC’s decision on both the York Avenue and First Avenue Estates in what it called a compromise between preservationists and landowners. Critics called it a backroom deal motivated by politics. One of the landowners in question, Peter Kalikow, owned the York Avenue Estates; he also owned the New York Post at the time.

Advocacy groups sued the city, alleging that an improper decision had been made, and lost. But those representing the York Avenue Estates appealed and won, returning the protection of landmark status uptown; the First Avenue Estates remained un-landmarked, until four years ago.

Starting in 2004, Friends of First Avenue Estate and other landmark advocates, including City Council Member Jessica Lappin, began pushing for LPC to designate the First Avenue Estates, and Community Board 8 voted in support of it. In 2006, Stahl sent a memo to tenants of the buildings at First Avenue Estates, explaining that they were forced to begin performing facade work to the buildings in response to what they called a sudden attempt by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Stahl had obtained legal permits to change some architectural elements of the buildings, and, according to the memo, felt that by removing these external characteristics, they would avoid landmark status. But LPC considered more than just the visual aspects of the buildings.

“These buildings are significant for their architectural and cultural heritage. They were one of the first model tenement complexes built with private funds,” said Tara Kelly, executive director of Friends of the Upper East Historic Districts. “In 2006, the Landmarks Commission was really correcting a wrong that had been made in 1990.”

LPC restored landmark status to the First Avenue Estates, despite strong protests from Stahl and from the Real Estate Board of New York, in 2007. Stahl promptly sued, arguing that the Board of Estimates made a proper decision in 1990 and that LPC and the City Council should be bound by it. They also contended that the original architect”s work was inferior to that of James Ware, who designed the 13 other buildings on the block, and that the recent facade work rendered any architectural significance obsolete. After losing in state Supreme Court, Stahl appealed, and the appellate court dismissed the case, finding that “petitioner’s argument overlooks that in 1990 the LPC had determined that the entire First Avenue Estate, not just some of the buildings individually, was a landmark site, and that but for the modification by the BOE, the entire block would have had landmark status since 1990.”

The LPC will hold a public hearing on Stahl’s application, which has not yet been calendared. Until then, residents and advocates simply wait.

“It’s very nerve-wracking,” said McLaughlin. “Not knowing whether your building is going to be knocked down.”

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