Big changes are not ahead for one little corner of the Upper East Side. On Tuesday, the Stahl Organization was denied permission, again, by the Landmarks Preservation Commission to demolish two of its buildings along York Avenuethe City and Suburban Homes First Avenue Estates at 429 East 64th Street and 430 East 65th Street. The six-story buildings were designed by Philip H. Ohm and were constructed back in 1914 as a model for modern tenement living. They were first designated landmarks in 1990 for their social and historical significance, but that same year, they were stripped of the status. In 2006, it was restored after years of fighting for it, but not before Stahl changed the exterior to pink stucco.
Now, 100 years after their construction, why is Stahl seeking to demolish them and build a new and taller structure in their place? Stahl claimed that they needed a hardship exception. Put simply, that means that they can't make a six percent return on the property. The last time the LPC granted a hardship exemption was in 1989, and the commission did not buy Stahl's argument, not for one second.
Outgoing LPC Chairman Robert Tierney spoke out first. He said that, first of all, trying to claim this hardship exemption based on just lot 22 (those two buildings) was, (not his words), cheating. He said that since Stahl owns the whole block, any application for anything should really be based on the income and residency and the block in its entirety.
Stahl claimed that they could only get $600 a month for these apartments. Really? Only get $600 a month in one of the most expensive and densely populated areas in the city? Really?! Tierneyand the rest of New York Citybelieved Stahl's claim was nonsense.
He also said that little effort was even committed to actually renting the vacant apartments, which the New York Times says account for about two-thirds of the 140 apartments. But, as Commissioner Margery Perlmutter pointed out, there is no reliable information on the vacancy rate. She said the LPC has had to wait up to eight months for a reply from Stahl.
In her objection to Stahl's hardship application, she said these apartments shouldn't be hard to lease, pointing out that they have more light and ventilation than most Park Avenue apartments. And if renovations are needed for some apartments, which nobody at Tuesday's hearing seemed to dispute, they wouldn't require heavy modification of the building, as any new equipment and furnishings could be lifted through an apartment's windows. She said apartments could be renovated in about six weeks each.
Stahl had asserted that a new building would include affordable housing. She said not to expect any. In addition, she said Stahl's numbers were all based on 2009 economic conditions and said that they could easily fetch in the range of $1,800 a month today.
Commissioner Michael Goldblum praised the apartments as "small but efficient." Is a real renovation of the building cost-prohibitive? He said no. Commissioner Diana Chapin echoed Chairman Tierney, saying that Stahl is intentionally not re-renting apartments.
Commissioner Frederick Bland, who is himself an architect and planner, said that the smaller apartments fit in a great niche and even cited former Mayor Michael Bloomberg's micro apartment competition. He also said the application was founded on bad numbers.
According to Commissioner Michael Devonshire some West Village landlords laughed when they heard of Stahl's hardship application. He said that Stahl was guilty of a "consistent undervaluing of [its] apartments," while commissioner Roberta Washington said Stahl "created its own hardship."
After what was a lengthy session, the LPC voted unanimously to deny Stahl's application, saying the burden had not been met. Upon the vote, there was applause from the audience, which included several people from the neighborhood. Tara Kelly, Executive Director of the Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts, told me she was "thrilled" and that the decision was the "best we could hope for." She accused Stahl of a "litany of neglect and poor management."
Evan Bindelglass is a local freelance journalist, photographer, cinephile, and foodie. You can e-mail him, follow him on Twitter @evabin, or check out his personal blog.
· Landmarks Commission Slams Landlord's Hardship Application [Curbed]
· Landlord Seeks Demolition, Argues Buildings Aren't Profitable [Curbed]
· All 429 East 64th Street coverage [Curbed]