First Avenue Estates Win A Big Victory for Preservation Everywhere
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First Avenue Estates Win A Big Victory for Preservation Everywhere

It’s not that often that we here at Off the Grid report on happenings on the Upper East Side.  But a big preservation victory there earlier this month with broad implications for landmark protections throughout New York City is certainly worth reporting on, and it’s a victory we are proud to say GVSHP had a small part in.

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On May 20th, the Landmarks Preservation Commission voted to deny a “hardship” application filed to allow a developer to demolish two buildings from the First Avenue Estates, a complex of model tenements built around the turn of the last century between First and York Avenues, 64th and 65th Streets, on the Upper East Side.  The application has a long and tortured history, as the owner had opposed the landmark designation of the historic property, and tried every approach possible to prevent preservation of the buildings, including stripping them of all architectural details and claiming that he could not rent the apartments at a profitable rate (because no one would pay good money to live in the East 60’s, right?).

Though perhaps not known to the general public, there is a provision within the landmarks law which says that if an owner can prove that the requirements of landmark designation impose an economic hardship upon them (defined as the inability to make a “reasonable return” on the property, which most courts have found to be something like an 8% annual profit), they can be relieved of those landmarks requirements, i.e. allowed to demolish an existing building or build a new one which the Landmarks Preservation Commission had disapproved. The standard for proving “hardship” for a non-profit or religious institution is even lower; the applicant need only prove that the landmarks requirement prevents them from fulfilling their charitable mission.

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The First Avenue estates, as seen from First Avenue.

It is absolutely legally essential that this hardship provision be a part of landmarks regulations, otherwise landmarks designation would amount to an uncompensated taking on the part of government of private property, which our courts have long found to be unacceptable.  And when you think about it, it’s only fair — if an owner cannot afford what the Landmarks Preservation Commission  (LPC) is requiring of them, how can they be expected to do it?  And if a church or charity cannot survive while abiding by the judgements of the LPC, how can they be expected to?

But this also means that it’s essential that hardship findings are only made when in fact there is a real hardship, and not simply when a developer doesn’t like their property being landmarked, which appeared to be the case here.  Just as a fairly applied hardship provision means that developers and non-profits can be assured that landmarks designation will not be an undue or unfair burden, applying it fairly also means that the public can be assured that great pieces of our cityscape will not lost simply because a developer or institution claims an insurmountable challenge in conforming to the law with no real proof to back it up.

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The innovative layout of the First Avenue Estates. showing how each room had a window with adequate light and air — a great innovation, and rarity for working class housing at the time.

Here is the description of the decision by the LPC in this case from Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts, our sister preservation organization which helped lead the charge against this false hardship claim (and who reached out to us, among other preservation groups, to seek our opposition to the application, which we provided):

The LPC rejected a “hardship application” filed by the owner of the properties, Stahl York Avenue, that would have enabled the demolition of two landmarked Upper East Side apartment buildings that are located within the oldest housing developments built and financed by private companies to provide homes for the city’s working poor. The battle to save these buildings has been going on for decades.

429 East 64th Street and 430 East 65th Street in Manhattan were constructed by City and Suburban Homes Company in 1915 and designated as individual New York City landmarks by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) for the significance of their design, as well as their pioneering role in social housing reform.  The buildings have a total of 190 rent-regulated units, though since the time of the hardship application 110 apartments have been kept vacant by the owner as part of an effort to redevelop the properties. The remaining units are home to longtime tenants of modest income.

Stahl York Avenue submitted a “hardship application” to the LPC for the demolition of the buildings on the grounds that they do not generate a six percent profit.  The owner’s application claimed that even after a $4.5 million renovation it would only be able to achieve average rents of $600 per unit, and that it would not be able to fully occupy the building at these rents.

FRIENDS successfully refuted these claims, presenting evidence of rents at comparable properties that are considerably higher.  A report by HR&A Advisors, Inc. thoroughly analyzed rents for similar apartments in the area and showed that the units could easily rent for $1,500 per month and that the vacancy rate would be no greater than five percent.

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For their great work, Friends, and other members of the First Avenue Estate Coalition will be honored by our friends at the Historic Districts Council at their Grassroots Preservation Awards next Wednesday, June 4th.  From HDC’s announcement:

First Avenue Estate Coalition is a group of advocates who have worked passionately against the application to demolish two landmark model tenement buildings. Originally designated with the rest of the City and Suburban Homes Company First Avenue Estate in 1990, the two buildings along York Avenue were later removed from the landmark site. In 2006, the Landmarks Preservation Commission re-designated these properties in spite of intentional defacement by the owner. A multi-year legal fight ensued but the designation was eventually upheld, at which point the owners filed to demolish the buildings citing economic hardship. The coalition includes Friends of First Avenue Estate and Concerned Citizens of E64th and E65thSts-First to York Avenues, two tenant groups who have advocated for the preservation of their homes for more than 25 years, and FRIENDS of the Upper East Side Historic Districts, a neighborhood organization dedicated to preserving the architectural legacy, livability and sense of place of the Upper East Side. Also involved in this more recent campaign is Jessica Lappin, local Council Member from 2006-2013, whose unwavering support has been critical. In the face of stalling tactics and the purposeful neglect of both tenant’s rights and needed maintenance to the buildings, the First Avenue Estate Coalition remains dedicated to preserving these early, successful examples of affordable housing, and achieved an important victory in May when the LPC unanimously denied the owner’s hardship application. 

 Whether you consider the Far East 60’s your neck of the woods or not, this is a preservation victory we can all be proud of.

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Andrew Berman

Andrew Berman has been the Executive Director of GVSHP since 2002.

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