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Landmarks Must Review Controversial Underground Railroad Penthouse: Judge

By Mathew Katz | August 6, 2013 2:25pm
 The owner of the Hopper-Gibbons House must go before the Landmarks Preservation Commission, a judge ruled.
The owner of the Hopper-Gibbons House must go before the Landmarks Preservation Commission, a judge ruled.
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DNAinfo/Nicole Breskin

CIVIC CENTER — The owner of the historic house that was once Manhattan's only stop on the Underground Railroad must appear before the Landmarks Preservation Commission over a controversial penthouse addition, a judge ruled on Tuesday.

In an expectedly quick ruling,state Supreme Court Judge Eileen Rakower said it would "not be arbitrary and capricious" for the city to require Tony Mamounas, owner of the Hopper-Gibbons House at 339 W. 29th St., to get permission to keep what opponents say is an illegal fifth-floor addition to the building.

The decision upholds a February ruling by the city's Board of Standards and Appeals and was hailed as a victory among the preservationists who hope to return the house to its original state, before the penthouse was added.

"It's incredible. It's a terrific surprise," said Fern Luskin, co-chair of the Friends of the Hopper-Gibbons Underground Railroad site.

According to the city, the Department of Buildings improperly issued Mamounas a permit to enlarge the building in 2005. Preservationists say the extension was built illegally in 2010, after the building and block had been landmarked as the Lamartine Place Historic District.

On Tuesday, Mamounas' lawyer, Tony Mitzner, argued that the Department of Buildings permit was properly issued under a waiver that allowed landlords to expand their older buildings in exchange for fire safety improvements. The city subsequently decided that such waivers could only be issued by the Board of Standards and Appeals and revoked the Hopper-Gibbons permit in 2009.

"The issue has nothing to do with the Lamartine Historic District," Mitzner said.

But after his permit was revoked, Mamounas waited years to appeal the decision — while still building the fifth floor, opponents said.

Mitzner said that because of the ongoing legal limbo his client was in, the 12-unit building only has one tenant.

"The impact on the owner is devastating," he said. "He spent all the money on the improvements."

Mitzner said his client now plans to appeal the decision, and the Landmarks Preservation Commission will likely wait for the legal action to be resolved before taking up the issue.