CHELSEA — The "bullying" owner of a building that served as a stop on the Underground Railroad is threatening to withhold improvements to the landmarked site if his plans to modify a controversial fifth-floor addition aren’t approved, opponents said.
In 2015, a panel of four state Supreme Court judges ruled that Tony Mamounas, who owns the Hopper-Gibbons House at 339 W. 29th St., between Eighth and Ninth avenues, would have to defend an alleged illegal addition to the building before the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission.
At a Community Board 4 committee meeting on Monday, Mamounas’ attorney Marvin Mitzner presented a new application to “modify the preexisting enlargement and extension” of the building.
Advocates maintain Mamounas built a fifth-floor addition illegally, after the building was landmarked as part of the Lamartine Place Historic District in 2010.
If the application is approved, Mamounas would modify the addition while ”being sensitive to the district," add a bulkhead to the building to provide staircase access to the roof, construct a fire escape on the front of the building and carry out general improvements, Mitzner said.
“We’ve set back the enlargement… and more importantly, we’ve taken… a plain, vanilla, ugly stucco building and are going to improve it significantly with brick treatment windows, cornices, to make it look like it belongs [with] other buildings in the district,” the lawyer said.
After Mitzner’s presentation, CB4 committee member Walter Mankoff claimed Mitzner was painting an incomplete portrait of the years-long battle between preservationists and Mamounas, as well as omitting the fact that the city’s Department of Buildings mistakenly gave the owner permission to add the fifth floor back in 2005.
Mitzner maintained the floor was built “prior to designation,” pursuant to permits that were revoked “after the fact.”
What had occurred in the past was “not really relevant” to the current application, he added.
“If you want the owner to take down the fifth floor, then what’s going to remain is an ugly, stucco, four-story building,” Mitzner continued.
Committee co-chairwoman Betty Mackintosh pressed the attorney to clarify his comment.
“It sounds like from your statement now that if you don’t get the [approvals], that all improvements are off. That’s what I hear?” she asked.
“...[I]f the issue is, ‘you shouldn’t have an enlargement on the roof at all,’ which I think some people would promote, I’m suggesting the owner could take down the fifth floor, but he doesn’t have to make any improvements to the building,” Mitzner responded.
Brian Weber, a public member of CB4’s Clinton/Hell’s Kitchen land use committee, called Mitzner’s presentation “deceptive."
“... I feel as if the developer was threatening us, that, ‘well, if you don’t approve our plans, we’re just going to take it down and leave it disfigured,’” Weber said. “It’s really inappropriate and disrespectful to the history of the building and the history of the community.”
The building — home to abolitionists Abigail and James Hopper Gibbons in the 1800s — served as a stop on the Underground Railroad and saw guests including William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass and John Brown.
The Gibbons family used the roof to escape an angry mob during the draft riots of 1863, city records show.
Preservationist Fern Luskin, a professor of art and architectural history at LaGuardia Community College, called the building's roof “sacrosanct.”
“It’s really due to Mr. Mamounas’ selfish greed and gall that he plans to deny future generations the history of this house, and ignore the wishes of his neighbors, all while flouting the law and the truth,” Luskin said, to applause from advocates at the meeting.
"He's the one that stripped the old bricks off... [and] replaced them with stucco," she added.
Moreover, renderings showing what the building would look like from the street post-modification are inaccurate, Luskin said.
Mitzner also failed to mention that Mamounas' plans include rear additions to the house that would involve excavating basement bedrock — a dangerous prospect for the landmark, she maintained.
The committee voted to write a letter to the LPC asking that Mamounas be required to return the building to the condition it was in when he bought it in 2003.
Following the meeting, preservationist Julie Finch said she perceived Mitzner’s statements as a “bullying threat.”
The LPC has scheduled a public hearing for Mamounas’ application on June 21, Luskin said.
A statement issued by elected officials including Borough President Gale Brewer, Councilman Corey Johnson and Assemblyman Richard Gottfried on Monday called Mamounas’ fifth-floor addition to the building “a monstrosity.”
“The removal of the illegal fifth-floor addition is long overdue,” the statement said. “The LPC must not allow [the owner’s building permits] to be reissued, and must order the illegally built additions to be finally torn down.”