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Tenants Battle Landlord Over Fate of Landmarked Upper East Side Buildings

By Amy Zimmer | April 13, 2011 8:39am

By Amy Zimmer

DNAinfo News Editor

MANHATTAN — The landlord of two landmarked Upper East Side buildings claims he needs to tear them down because of economic problems — but residents and preservationists aren't letting that go down without a fight.

Stahl York Avenue LLC filed an application to demolish 429 East 64th and 430 East 65th streets, telling the Landmarks Preservation Commission the buildings don't generate enough revenue and should be razed to make way for a new one.

The bid sparked a backlash from tenants of the buildings' rent-regulated apartments, who mobilized in an effort to save them, passing out flyers and launching a letter-writing campaign. The Friends of the Upper East Side group is commissioning its own analysis of Stahl's self-proclaimed financial hardship.

"I'm not an economist, an accountant or real estate appraiser, but as a lay person and a New Yorker, it doesn't seem reasonable that they could not make a profit," said Tara Kelly, executive director of the Friends group.

Stahl did not respond to requests for comment.

Stahl's buildings are a part of the First Avenue Estate apartment complex, 15 walk-up apartment buildings built between 1898 and 1915 to address the sub-standard housing conditions of poor workers across the city.

The buildings, which were constructed around a courtyard, offered a new model of affordable housing unlike the window-less and air-less rooms of Lower East Side tenements, for instance.

The entire complex was awarded landmark status in 1990. But critics were alarmed when Stahl's buildings were stripped of their landmark status shortly after being placed on the list.

Tenants and neighborhood groups spent 16 years fighting for the buildings to regain their landmark status — which was granted even after Stahl began to destroy the building's façade, in what critics saw as an attempt to make them ineligible to be landmarked again.

"The reason for the landmarking was not so much that it's a beautiful building like the Chrysler, but that the buildings at York Avenue are the end result of the First Avenue estate experiment to model humane tenements," resident Jay Kusnetz, 47, said.

"Losing (these) ...buildings would be like a symphony or book with the last pages lost. It would diminish the whole."

After the re-designation, Stahl sued. An appellate judge ruled against the landlord in June. The company then submitted a hardship application to the Landmarks Preservation Commission in October seeking to demolish the buildings.

An LPC spokeswoman confirmed that the landlord is expected to submit a revised application and said a hearing has not yet been scheduled.

Hardship applications are rare. There have only been 16 since the landmarks law was enacted in 1965, the LPC spokeswoman added.

Under the landmarks law, the landlord is entitled to a "reasonable return" of six percent. That return is impossible, according to Stahl.

The company's application states there are 190 units in the two buildings, averaging 371 square feet with "bathrooms that require undersized tubs and toilets, tiny closets and electrical systems which do not support modern usage."

More than half of the units are vacant and, of the 83 that are occupied, 76 are rent stabilized and seven are rent controlled, according to the application. Stahl claimed that even with a renovation, it would take more than four years to rent out all of the empty units and that the average monthly rents — at market rate — would not exceed $600.

Residents claimed that estimate was "ridiculous."

"Can you imagine if there were $600 one-bedrooms, including utilities, on the Upper East Side? You could rent out an apartment for that price without heat and hot water," said Monica McLauglin, who has lived at the building for 20 years.

Meanwhile, preservationists and tenants said they'll continue to rally supporters.

"The demolition of any landmark building is a threat to all landmarked buildings," Kelly said.