At 55 years old, New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission has reached late middle age. And for more than half the commission’s life, an epic preservation fight has been waged over two Progressive Era Upper East Side tenement buildings facing Rockefeller University.
The pair of six-story walk-ups are the easternmost of the 15 attached buildings comprising First Avenue Estate, a pioneering model tenement complex built between 1898 and 1915 by the City and Suburban Homes Company on the full block bounded by 64th and 65th streets, First Avenue and York Avenue. The entire complex, which lacks the aesthetic glamour of more familiar city landmarks, was granted landmark protection by the city in 1990.
All 15 buildings are owned by the Stahl Organization, a family business that has owned or co-owned many high-profile New York City landmarks, including TriBeCa’s Western Union Building, in which the company holds a majority stake, and the Chanin Building, on East 42nd Street, which it owns outright. In most cases, Stahl has embraced the historic allure of its landmarks while updating them for modern usage. And extensive renovations have even been undertaken on many of the beige brick First Avenue Estate buildings.
But the two First Avenue Estate tenements facing York Avenue, which together contain 190 snug, mostly rent-regulated apartments, have been a battlefield. For years, Stahl has sought to demolish the pair and replace them with something taller and more lucrative overlooking the East River.
The refusal by the Supreme Court of the United States last October to hear an appeal by Stahl prompted preservationists to declare victory and announce an upcoming four-day Zoom conference and celebration of the 30th anniversary of the complex’s landmark designation.
But is the Thirty Years’ War really over? Brian Maddox, a Stahl spokesman, would not discuss the organization’s plans for 429 East 64th Street and 430 East 65th Street, which the company stripped of their historic architectural detail and covered with incongruous pink stucco in 2006. In a statement, Mr. Maddox said only, “We continue to believe that the buildings lack landmark quality, and have had in our portfolio over the decades many buildings designated as landmarks.”
In granting landmark status to all the buildings of First Avenue Estate, which are distinguished from typical period tenements by interior courtyards and abundant windows, the landmarks commission noted that the complex was the oldest surviving development of the most successful of the philanthropic companies that limited investors’ dividends to provide comfortable housing to the working poor at the turn of the 20th century.
State courts have repeatedly upheld the commission’s determination that the two walk-ups are indeed worthy of landmark protection, just like the rest of the complex. And federal and state courts have found that Stahl’s application to raze the two disputed tenements was properly denied by the city in 2014.
“We hope for a good working relationship with the owner going forward and to see the buildings rehabilitated and fully occupied,” said Zodet Negrón, the commission’s spokeswoman. For years, Stahl has not re-rented apartments as they became vacant. A tenants’ organization estimated that only about 30 percent of the units are now occupied — with more than 125 empty.
As it happens, the two tenements were granted landmark status by the commission not just once but twice. In 1990 the full block of First Avenue Estate was designated a landmark, along with York Avenue Estate, a sister complex built by the same company 14 blocks north around the same time.
The developer Peter S. Kalikow, who owned York Avenue Estate, protested, prompting the city’s powerful Board of Estimate, in one of its final acts before disbanding, to strip a pair of buildings in each complex of their landmark protection just four months after their designations.
A lawsuit by tenants and area residents regained landmark status for the two buildings in the more northern complex in 1992. But the two First Avenue Estate tenements were left vulnerable until 2006. That year, with stout backing from City Councilwoman Jessica S. Lappin, the two disputed walk-ups were redesignated as landmarks. The City Council then voted unanimously to ratify the decision.
But before the two buildings were safely under the landmark umbrella again, Stahl began to strip their facades of their stone, marble and terra-cotta trim, ultimately refacing the structures in coral-pink stucco. The alterations transformed the tenements into pink elephants with scant resemblance to the rest of the historic complex.
“We are responding to a sudden attempt by the Landmarks Preservation Commission to designate” the buildings as landmarks, Stahl told tenants in a memo in November 2006. “About two years ago, we obtained this alteration permit, but we were hoping that we would not have to exercise it.”
Eight days later, the commission restored the tenements’ landmark status anyway, basing its decision as much on historical significance as architectural.
“If you look back at the commission’s history of designation, they were slow — advocates like me would say — to recognize social and historical landmarks,” said Franny Eberhart, president of the Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts. “They focused on architectural elements like those in brownstone neighborhoods.”
The First Avenue Estate designation, she added, “was a very bold move, a leap forward in inclusiveness of different forms of our history.”
Each of the two contested walk-ups is entered on a side street through a grand stone portal flanked by imposing brackets carrying an overhanging cornice. Passing through a broad, arched passage, visitors emerge into a central light court with four corner entrances. The twin tenements also share an enclosed side court.
The president of City and Suburban, E.R.L. Gould, described his company’s approach as “a middle ground between pure philanthropy and pure business.” The firm’s investors, including Cornelius Vanderbilt, agreed to limit their return in order to provide airy, bright apartments to the working class. The model tenement, then, served as a financial model as well as an architectural one.
Stahl has repeatedly challenged the two pink tenements’ preservation. In 2010, the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s denial of the company’s claim that the commission’s landmarking of the entire block was “arbitrary and capricious.”
The following year, Stahl applied to the commission for permission to demolish the two tenements, claiming that rent regulations and the apartments’ small size made it impossible to earn a “reasonable return” — defined in the city Landmarks Law as six percent of the buildings’ assessed value.
Seeking a “hardship” exemption from landmark rules, the landlord submitted studies concluding that the apartments, which averaged 371 square feet, would rent for no more than $600 a month. Friends of the Upper East Side presented an opposing study showing that the units would fetch $1,500 a month.
In 2014, the commission voted unanimously to reject the hardship application. Stahl challenged the decision in state and federal court, including a claim that the city’s rejection of its application represented an unconstitutional “taking” of private property.
But in 2018, the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court upheld a lower-court ruling that no such taking had occurred. Both the state Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Stahl’s appeals, ending once and for all the company’s challenge to the city’s denial of its hardship application.
The city’s victory “demonstrates the diligence and care” of the commission “in upholding the rule of law, in particular the economic hardship exemption to the preservation ordinance,” said Will Cook, a preservation lawyer who represented the National Trust for Historic Preservation in its role as a friend of the court supporting the city.
“Beyond New York City, the case has ramifications because cities all across the country look to New York, which has one of the most robust preservation advocacy communities in the country,” Mr. Cook added. “As a result, case law from New York influences preservation law in other states.”
For years during the legal wrangling, conditions at the two tenements deteriorated.
To residents’ dismay, the sheds erected for the facade stripping remained for almost a decade, cloaking sidewalks in shadow and providing shelter for defecating pigeons. When the decaying sheds were finally dismantled in 2016, tenants delivered six rescued fledgling pigeons, which they named after Stahl executives, to the Wild Bird Fund.
That year, after retaining Urban Justice Center attorneys with the help of State Senator Liz Krueger, 20 tenants sued Stahl in New York City Housing Court for failure to make repairs. Stahl agreed to court-ordered building inspections, at the end of which some 300 open violations were on file with the city. The landlord then made hundreds of repairs.
“Now, and ever since we sued them, they fix things,” said Monica McLaughlin, 61, a freelance lawyer and tenant leader whose $787-a-month one-bedroom was first rented by her father, a doorman, in 1976. “For me personally, what was really important was for them not to be able to treat us the way they were treating us.”
What happens next to the pink elephants is Stahl’s move, but the city will be watching.
“The Landmarks Law requires the owner to keep the buildings in good repair, so we will be keeping an eye on the buildings to ensure that standard is maintained,” said Ms. Negrón, the commission spokeswoman. While the city cannot mandate that the vacant units be put on the market, she added, “we hope the landlord does what’s necessary to re-rent the apartments.”
In a borough with a vacancy rate of just 2.4 percent, according to a Douglas Elliman report, the market would likely welcome additional affordable housing.
“Warehousing apartments at a time of near-record rents shows a significant disconnect with market conditions,” said Jonathan Miller, an appraiser and the author of the report.
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