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Save Historic Uptown Homes From Developers, Locals Urge City

 Matthew Spady and Vivian Ducat said the block on 158th St. is ripe for development.
Matthew Spady and Vivian Ducat said the block on 158th St. is ripe for development.
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Vivian Ducat

WASHINGTON HEIGHTS — Residents are trying to speed up the process of designating a dozen houses on 158th Street as part of a local historic district — saying they fear the “block is ripe for development that could change its character forever.”

Historian Matthew Spady and filmmaker Vivian Ducat said they’re racing against the clock to save the houses at 626-648 West 158th St. — the only collection of row houses built in the area, which date back to around the late 1800s — by including them in the Audubon Park Historic District.

Although the Landmarks Preservation Commission considered the houses in 2009, when the historic district was designated, they ultimately decided against landmarking them, citing “time and resource constraints,” Spady said.

Spady, who spearheaded that preservation project and runs several tours and events in the district, said the commission said it would consider the houses at a later time.

But after finding that one of the buildings  — 636 W. 158th Street — sold for $1.4 million on Nov. 14, 2015, according to StreetEasy data online, Ducat said that time is now.

Owner information and record of the sale were not immediately available from the Department of Finance.

“Developers are rampant,” she said, “and it’s only a matter of time before they decide to knock those [houses] down and build over it.”

Ducat quickly launched a campaign to save the properties, reaching out to community board members, elected officials and even applying for – and later winning – the “Six to Celebrate” campaign with the Historic District Council. 

"I wrote to [board members] and said, 'We should worry about this,'" said Ducat, who co-chairs a local organization that runs history sessions, art installations and art fairs along the historic district area.

Ducat and Spady also collected letters from residents who grew up in the area and held an event celebrating Audubon's birthday, where they were able to get more than 100 signatures to submit to the LPC.

A spokeswoman for the LPC said the request is currently under review by the agency.

Spady said the houses were designed as a whole by architect John P. Leo, before the subway arrived to the area, bringing a need for the larger apartment buildings that exist today.

“Individually they’re mildly interesting, but taken as a group — and that they’ve all still survived — they’re all very interesting,” he said, adding that any construction above six stories “would have an adverse effect on buildings in all directions.”

Councilman Mark Levine said he's also supporting the bid to landmark the row.

“Those 12 houses should be part of the broader district,” Levine said. “I’m optimistic that any consideration will happen very quickly, but even at its quickest, it’s still a matter of many months.”

Ducat said for now they’re going to continue gathering signatures to submit to the LPC. The goal, she said, was more than a thousand signers.

“We’re racing against the developers,” she added. “We’re racing to get this.”