By Jeff Mays
HARLEM — For two decades, the Mink Building in West Harlem has been under consideration for approval as a New York City landmark.
But Community Board 9 tried to put an end to the standoff between preservationists and developers last week, by voting overwhelmingly to remove the building from consideration as a historic landmark.
"There are some people who are purists who feel everyhing should be preserved. I feel we need a mixture of preservation and rehabilitation for use," said Walter South, chair of the Community Board 9's landmarks committee.
Taking the building at 1361 Amsterdam Ave. permanently off the list for landmark designation would likely require the support of local elected officials and then approval from the Landmark Preservation Commission and the Department of City Planning.
The Mink Building was built in 1905 and once housed the former Bernheimer & Schwartz Pilsener Brewing Company. In the 1940s, it became a storage facility where the wealthy stored their furs for the summer, before becoming office space in the late 1990s.
Owner Scott Metzner of Janus Property Company hailed the decision to take it off the list of possible landmarks, saying it was an undue "burden" that stood between him and would-be tenants.
"When a tenant comes to us and asks for something built to their specifications, my answer always is: 'We don't know.' We have to wait 40 days to make the most basic of changes such as moving a wall," said Metzner, adding that he would have to wait for permission from the Landmarks Preservation Committee before conducting any construction work.
Metzner said the tentative designation hurt his ability to alter parts of the once window-deprived storage space and subdivide it in a way that would attract more tenants, activity, jobs and economic development to West Harlem. Potential tenants looked elsewhere and current tenants decided to leave, he said.
However, some preservationists mourned the end of a phase they said protected the longstanding building.
"We are allowing our history and cultural heritage to be destroyed," said Michael Henry Adams, a Harlem preservationist and historian who also serves as an aide to State Senator Bill Perkins.
Adams said that the Landmarks Preservation Committee has not protected the landmarks in Harlem as well as they have in other parts of the city because they are afraid of the political consequences. The fact that this building has been under consideration as a landmark for 20 years is a prime example of that, he said.
"Compared to richer neighborhoods downtown we don't have many landmarks," Adams said. "The lie we are told is that if we don't have landmarks we can have economic development. But TriBeCa is an area with some of the most landmarks and it also has the most development. One has nothing to do with the other."
Adams said most of the changes Janus has wanted to make to the property have been approved, so the idea that landmark status will limit economic development is a false one.
In addition, he rejected the idea that the building no longer held as much historical signifigance because of past alterations.
"Why would the AIA Guide to New York City lie? Why would the Landmark Preservation Commission be interested in the building?" he asked.
But several community board members said that continued economic development in the area was important and that the buildings have already been altered enough to limit their historic significance.
At the Mink Building, many of the changes that people think are historic — such as the arch-shaped windows — have actually been added during recent Janus renovations, according to proponents of taking it off the landmark list. In addition, alterations have already substantially changed the nature of the former brewery and fur storage space. For example, the current entrance at 128th and Amsterdam was previously the back of the factory. Metzner said that even the name of the structure — the Mink Building — was part of the Janus marketing campaign.
With a sweeping rezoning of West Harlem— the first since 1961— about to get underway, Metzner is pushing for the buildings he owns at 128th Street and Amsterdam to be changed to mixed use properties. The area is currently zoned mostly for one-story manufacturing structures.
Metzner, who owns nine buildings in the complex, purchased the first one in 1997 and the last in 2008. He said the company has spent $20 million rehabbing the structures. It now houses everything from the offices of various non-profits to a movie prop rental business.
"There's no need to protect this from the people who raised it from the dead," said Metzner.
He said if approved, the removal from landmark status along with changes to zoning rules could allow him to expand the space inside the building to more than 500,000 of mixed use office space from the current 300,000.
Maritta Dunn, the former chair of Community Board 9, said she has seen Metzner transform the Mink Building and others in the complex from a vermin-infested trap to what it is today. Back in 1997, there was a lot of concern that Metzner was going to take the building down and construct cheaply built market-rate housing.
"They stood by their word. They made that building what it is today," said Dunn. "When I went there in 1997 there were leftover minks and rats running all over the building."
Current board chair Larry English, who voted in favor of the proposal, agreed.
"if it was another developer this board probably would have issued a resounding no," English said before issuing Metzner a warning.
"This board has taken a step with you. Do not allow us to walk past that building and feel we made a mistake," English said.