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Landmarks 'Ignored' Community Input in 'Megamansion' Approval, Locals Say

By Maya Rajamani | March 22, 2017 8:46am
 A photo of the parlor dinning room looking into the front parlor at 404 W. 20th St., just before the house was sold in 2015.
A photo of the parlor dinning room looking into the front parlor at 404 W. 20th St., just before the house was sold in 2015.
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Courtesy of Lesley Doyel

CHELSEA — Local leaders who fought to keep the oldest house in the Chelsea Historic District from becoming a “megamansion” want to see more “accountability and transparency” from the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission in its approval process.

Last summer, the LPC green lit a homeowner’s plans to alter the 1800s-era house at 404 W. 20th St. between Ninth and 10th avenues — a decision preservationists at the time said would “effectively demolish” the historic property.

Members of Community Board 4 felt the commission disregarded their concerns about the plans, member David Holowka said at a meeting Monday.

“We’re being pointed to as part of a public process, so that Landmarks ostensibly isn’t acting alone, because we write these advisory letters to them, but they completely ignored ours,” he said.

When developers conduct Environmental Impact Statements prior to construction, their final reports include and address any issues the local community board has raised, added Lee Compton, co-chairman of the board's Chelsea Land Use Committee.

“We have felt … like we’ve been tossing letters into this void, and nothing ever happens,” Compton said.

The board originally considered approaching the City Council to request an oversight hearing looking into the LPC's practices, Holowka added.

On the advice of a longtime preservationist, however, the board decided against that approach, he said.

“When you … take the hood up on Landmarks to look at possibly reforming it, there are parties who will sort of rush in and say, ‘Well, it’s broken, and it needs fixing,’ and they’ll want to fix it their way,” he explained, citing the Real Estate Board of New York — a consortium of city developers — as a potential interested party.

To avoid that, the board plans to reach out to other Manhattan community boards to gauge their interest in raising concerns about the Commission's process, Compton said.

It hopes to bring the issue before the Manhattan Borough Board — a group that includes Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and all of the Manhattan-based councilmembers and community board chairs — to decide how to proceed.

“That’s exactly what is missing here — accountability and transparency,” Compton said, referring to developers' inclusion of community input in their reports. “We thought that that would probably be the best approach — to say, ‘This agency needs some more of that.’”