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St. Mark’s air rights deal scrutinized during LPC hearing

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“If we were to say no to this, it may result in something worse,” said one landmarks commissioner

The proposed building at 3 St. Mark’s Place.
Morris Adjmi Architects courtesy of Landmarks Preservation Commission

The city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) expressed apprehensive support Tuesday for a contested plan to enlarge a 10-story office building proposed for St. Mark’s Place and Third Avenue with air rights from the neighboring landmarked Hamilton-Holly House, but sent the developer back to the drawing board to reconfigure the plan.

Real Estate Equities Corporation (REEC) is seeking a special permit to enhance the size of a Morris Adjmi-designed office building with 8,386 square feet of air rights from the Hamilton-Holly House—once home to Alexander Hamilton’s widow and children—across the street in a $4 million deal. A crucial step in that process is for LPC to issue a report to the City Planning Commission (CPC) allowing the development under a specific zoning resolution.

Although members of the landmarks commission were torn on beefing up the glassy office building, the majority said not to do so would lead to a project without a historic preservation benefit and could undermine the air rights transfer tool.

“It may result, if we were to say no to this, it may result in something worse,” said Michael Goldblum, a commissioner with LPC and founder of Building Studio Architects. “It’s very, very important that we support the notion of air rights transfer. It’s the principal carrot in the arsenal of the commission and even if in this particular location it may be less necessary because the property values have gone so high, there are many places in New York City where this kind of tool is incredibly valuable.”

If the air rights transfer were to go through, five percent of the sale—$200,000—would be placed in a dedicated account for the landmark to achieve “sound first class condition,” which is beyond city landmark standards, and its owner would enter into a maintenance contract permanently bound to the property. Even if that restoration fund were to dry up, the city would compel the landlord to restore the building with hefty fines. In anticipation of the exchange, REEC has poured some $500,000 into revitalizing the up-until-recently dilapidated Federal style-building, according to the developer.

Manhattan Community Board 3 and some local groups have come out against the plan and have called the arrangment “disconcerting,” “awful,” and “worrying” with how the office building relates to the character of the East Village. Others have questioned the worthiness of an air rights deal that would create a fund to restore the Hamilton-Holly House when the building was recently rehabilitated.

Even if the air rights deal doesn’t go through, the developers can still build a pared down 10-story office building—the first setback would be at 63 feet under the special permit—and argue that the arrangement is a windfall for the landmark.

Morris Adjmi Architects courtesy of Landmarks Preservation Commission

“We believe that the massing and the height of what we’re proposing is in scale with the neighborhood, and we believe that it is actually better than the as-of-right [building],” said Morris Adjmi, the lead architect behind the design.

The office building planned for the corner of St. Mark’s Place is not within a historic district, therefore the design does not require approval from LPC. Instead, the commission has say over the restoration of the landmark and in determining how “harmonious” the new building would be with the landmark at 4 St. Mark’s Place. Some commissioners lamented that they were tasked with approaching the project from a narrow scope, but saw the air rights transfer as serving a valuable purpose for the Hamilton-Holly House’s continued upkeep.

“For me, even though on some level I’m having a problem with the whole thing, on another level this important landmark is going to be restored and it is important, so I’m in favor of that,” said Jeanne Lutfy, a commissioner with LPC and a real estate salesperson with Halstead. “I’m in favor of the best restoration possible and a maintenance plan that can actually ensure that it is restored and in a neighborhood where there is a lot of development going up.”

But local elected officials, including City Council member Carlina Rivera, are skeptical of the precedent the project could set for the East Village and other neighborhoods.

“The approval or denial of this application will set the standard for future 74-79 permits in similar neighborhoods, so we must take great care to ensure that the original intent of the special permit is maintained,” said Jeremy Unger at Tuesday’s hearing, a spokesperson who read a statement on behalf of Council member Rivera.

“Considering that the applicant in this case could construct a building of nearly the same height as-of-right, I believe this permit process provides the rare opportunity for the community to play a part in ensuring that new development in the East Village remains true to the identity of this area,” Unger continued.

State Senator Brad Hoylman and Assemblywoman Deborah Glick went a step further, calling on the LPC to outright deny the bulk waiver and said the dedicated fund the sale would create to maintain the landmark is “trivial.”

“We believe that 5 precent of the sale is trivial in relation to what the community is being asked to accept,” said Asher Baumrin, a staffer with State Senate Democrats, on behalf of Hoylman and Glick. “If the Landmarks Preservation Commission approves the developer’s wish to transfer air rights to build a tall structure at the entrance to this historic street, it could inspire further out-of-context development on St. Mark’s Place.”

REEC will return to LPC at a not-yet-scheduled public meeting once they have altered their proposal to incorporate the commission’s recommendation that they lower the structure’s first setback to better align with St. Mark’s street wall and other feedback.