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Plans to Turn Chelsea's Oldest Home Into 'Megamansion' Decried by Locals

By Maya Rajamani | April 25, 2016 7:35am
 The new owner of 404 W. 20th St. has filed an application with the LPC to alter the building.
Neighbors Oppose Plans To Turn Historic Chelsea House Into 'Megamansion'
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CHELSEA — A millionaire’s plan to turn the oldest house in the Chelsea Historic District into a “megamansion” would demolish all but the façade and contradict “the very purpose of historic districts,” advocates and local officials say.

In March, businessman Ajoy Kapoor filed an application with the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission to alter the Federal-style house at 404 W. 20th St., between Ninth and 10th avenues.


He purchased the property last year after it hit the market for $6.5 million.

A man by the name of Hugh Walker commissioned the landmarked home’s construction back in 1830 after leasing the land from poet Clement Clarke Moore — known for giving the Chelsea neighborhood its name — for $40 per year, city records show.

Kapoor plans to “construct additions and excavate the rear yard” of the property, an LPC spokeswoman said.

But in a letter dated last week, Community Board 4 asked the LPC to deny Kapoor’s application.

“The current proposal would demolish the entire house except for its street façade and do further violence to this house and to the most historically sensitive and architecturally distinguished block in Chelsea,” the letter maintained.

Planned alterations include using the house’s side-yard space to increase its area and street frontage, excavating below the basement to create a cellar floor “lit by rear yard skylights,” adding two upper stories and “encroaching twenty-five feet farther south into the rear yard,” CB4 wrote.

The new height would be “fundamentally different in character and scale” from existing historic district houses, it added.

Both the board and members of advocacy group Save Chelsea take issue with what the letter said was architect William Suk’s claim that the house is “too deteriorated to save.”

“They want to tear it down to make a megamansion,” architect and Save Chelsea member David Holowka told DNAinfo. “I don’t see that the house was in danger of collapse."

At a public hearing for the proposal on Tuesday, the LPC asked Suk to “modify the project" by simplifying the side yard addition design and "scal[ing] back the rear and rooftop addition," its spokeswoman said.

The applicant will return for a future public meeting, she added.

Holowka claimed the LPC glossed over the fact that the building would be essentially "torn down" and focused primarily on the proposed rear addition.

“I don’t believe a single one of those commissioners read Community Board 4’s letter,” he said. “They referred to it only glancingly and they do not seem to have absorbed any of its content."

But LPC's spokeswoman said the commission "often approves additions in conjunction with new interiors, and often asks that additions are scaled back to maintain a sense of the original volume."

In the case of 404 W. 20th St., the applicant's assessment found that "the building was structurally unsound, and that the interior and side walls would have to be reconstructed even if there was no addition," she said.

"In regards to CB4, the chair verbally noted their opposition to the project during the public hearing... and their written statement was entered into the record," she added.

Suk did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the proposed alterations or neighbors’ concerns, and Kapoor could not be reached for comment.

It’s not the first time the real estate plans of Kapoor, who started private equity company Saffron Asset Advisors in 2006, have faced opposition.

In 2013, neighbors fought the businessman’s plans to transform a Victorian office and residential building in a conservation area in London into three townhouses with home movie theaters and basement fitness centers, the London Evening Standard reported.   

Holowka and the board maintain the proposed alterations could be considered “facadism” — keeping a historic building’s façade while demolishing and modernizing the rest.

“[The LPC] has been acting as if its purview in historic districts does not extend beyond the façade,” Holowka said. “What does it say that the oldest house in Chelsea within a landmark district can be destroyed?”

When Save Chelsea co-president Lesley Doyel and her husband Nick Fritsch sold the building last year, they never expected its new owner would “tear it down and demolish it,” Doyel said.

She grew up in the house, which her parents purchased in 1965 after living there since 1952.

“Old houses are very expensive, and so to maintain a house that’s almost 200 years old was just becoming more than we could do,” she explained of the sale.

“[The proposed alteration] is not renovation, this is demolition,” she maintained.

“We figured that there were going to be major alterations, but certainly not changing the envelope of the house,” Fritsch added.

Approval of the plans — even in an altered form — would be a “huge blow to historic districts everywhere,” Doyel maintained.

“This would be a terrible loss for Chelsea,” she said. “But it would also be a terrible loss for preservation.”