CITY HALL — The Landmarks Preservation Commission rejected a landlord's nearly decade-long bid to demolish his Upper East Side buildings to make way for high-rise development Tuesday — saying the owner actively avoided renting out apartments in an attempt to prove they weren't desirable.
The commission denied Stahl Real Estate’s hardship application for 429 E. 65th St. and 430 E. 64th St., two buildings that are a part of the landmarked First Avenue Estate complex. Stahl claimed that the two buildings could not return an appropriate profit due to their small size and irregular layouts of the units.
However, the LPC disagreed and blasted the landlord for some of the claims in the application.
“It belies my believability as a New Yorker of 45 years or more that an apartment on the Upper East Side could rent for $600 a month,” said LPC chairman Robert Tierney, in reference to Stahl’s estimation of how much rent each unit could fetch.
The First Avenue Estate complex, built between 1898 and 1915, were designed to improve substandard housing conditions for the city’s working poor. They feature large courtyards and windows in every room to increase light and ventilation.
The fight between the landlord and tenants over the two buildings started in the 1990s when the buildings were removed from the original landmark protection of the whole complex. Tenants and community preservation groups fought for years to have the buildings re-designated, a goal they achieved in 2006.
Stahl then sued the city in an attempt to reverse the decision.
When that failed, Stahl filed a hardship application with the LPC in October 2010. The owner argued that the buildings could not return a 6 percent profit, the standard for claiming hardship, because they consisted of small, walkup units that were located far from transportation and neighborhood amenities.
In its application, Stahl estimated that the units could fetch only $600 in monthly rent without major renovations. The owner pointed to the high vacancy rate in the two buildings and in the complex as a whole as proof of its unprofitability.
The commission, however, pointed out that the vacancy rate in the surrounding neighborhood is about 1.5 percent and said that Stahl’s leasing office made little effort to rent units in the complex, failing to advertise them on popular websites and sometimes telling interested renters that no units were available.
In addition, the LPC noted that Stahl had purposefully warehoused units in the two buildings under review. Of the 190 units in the two buildings, 107 are currently vacant and many of them have been allowed to fall into disrepair.
“The cost to renovate these apartments is a self-imposed hardship that should not be taken into account in this decision,” said Mark Silberman, a lawyer for LPC.
The agency's commissioners voted unanimously to deny the hardship application.
"We will pursue further legal remedies, and are confident that this erroneous decision will be overturned," a spokesman for Stahl said.
Hardship applications are very rare. According to the LPC, Stahl’s is only the 18th submitted to the commission since the landmarks law was enacted in 1965. The LPC sided with the applicant in 13 of the previous cases.
Tenants and preservation groups celebrated the victory, but doubted that the decision would defeat Stahl.
“They're tenacious. They have unlimited funds and they've spent millions warehousing apartments, destroying the building’s façade and harassing tenants,” said Monic McLaughlin, who has lived in the building for more than 20 years. “I’m relieved, but I’m also fearful because I don’t think this is over.”