New York Times: For a Landmark Un-landmarked, A Bid to Undo the Undoing
For a Landmark Un-landmarked, A Bid to Undo The Undoing
By JAKE MOONEY
Published: November 12, 2006
OUTWARDLY, the two six-story buildings on York Avenue between 64th and 65th Streets aren't much different from the 13 other buildings that make up the City and Suburban First Avenue Estate, a model tenement complex built early in the 20th century as comfortable housing for the working poor.
Like the rest of the complex, and like a similar City and Suburban development 14 blocks north, the two buildings are made of tan brick fringed with fire escapes. Their grand arched entryways lead to interior courtyards that, like similar cutouts in all the buildings, provide tenants with precious light and air.
But on paper, a big difference sets the two buildings apart from all the other City and Suburban buildings. They are not city landmarks.
Now, 16 years after the city's powerful Board of Estimate stripped the two buildings of their landmark designations in one of its last acts before being disbanded, the Landmarks Preservation Commission is considering whether to reverse the reversal.
The structures, at 429 East 64th Street and 430 East 65th, were landmarks for four months in 1990. Then they weren't anymore. But if supporters get their way in a meeting on Tuesday, they could soon be again.
'What happened was a mistake in government,' City Councilwoman Jessica Lappin, a driving force behind the campaign, said last week. 'And I view this as an exciting and unique opportunity to fix what was a bad backroom deal.' If the buildings' landmark designations are not restored, she said, their owner, Stahl Real Estate, plans to tear them down and replace them with towers.
'Building a tower in itself is not a bad thing,' Ms. Lappin said, 'but building a tower in what is a model full-block tenement, it irreparably harms the meaning of the full-block tenement.' She added, 'If you throw up a huge tower, that's going to impact the air and impact the light and impact the reasons why they were built.'
Elizabeth Pearce, 68, a retired Citibank employee who has lived at 430 East 65th Street for 28 years, said sunny rooms and cross-breezes were the best things about her apartment. 'Whoever designed this building designed it knowing how to capture light,' she said. She also opposes leaving two of the complex's buildings without landmark designation, calling it akin to designating the Statue of Liberty, but not its torch.
Martin McLaughlin, a spokesman for Stahl, said demolition was not imminent because there are still tenants in the buildings, which remain rent-stabilized. 'Would they want to build something there eventually?' Mr. McLaughlin asked. 'Obviously they would, yes. But that could be 10 years from now.' As for the buildings' significance, he said, 'I don't think they're distinctive in any way, and they're not of landmark quality.'
Indeed, the case for landmark status is more historical than architectural. Like the City and Suburban York Avenue Estate, built between 78th and 79th Streets about the same time, the complex between 64th and 65th Streets was financed by the Vanderbilts and other prominent families, who agreed to limit their profits in developing alternatives to the overcrowded tenements of the Lower East Side. The buildings offered then-modern amenities like steam radiators, private bathrooms, and closets.
When both complexes were designated as landmarks in 1990, the owner of the buildings farther uptown, Peter Kalikow, who had hoped to build luxury apartments there, objected. That led the Board of Estimate to strip two buildings in each complex of landmark designation. After a lawsuit by a tenants' organization and a neighborhood group, the two Kalikow buildings were redesignated as landmarks in 1992, but the two others remain unprotected.
If the landmarking succeeds, Mr. McLaughlin said, Stahl may appeal in court. He said the developer had offered to move residents of the two buildings to other apartments in the complex, and to redo the interiors of the other 13 buildings. Ms. Lappin rejected the idea, saying the issue is the buildings' fitness for landmark status.
On Thursday, Stahl set up sheds outside the buildings for facade work under pre-existing permits. Some were worried that such work could diminish the buildings' architectural value.
For Seri Worden, executive director of Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts, the key is to keep the City and Suburban complexes whole and undisturbed. 'There's a lot of important social history here that you don't want to divide up or cut out,' she said.