Using History As A Weapon Against The Wrecking Ball

| 17 Feb 2015 | 01:14

Upper West Side residents want the landmarks commission to reconsider a building slated for demolition

Upper West Siders opposed to a developer's plan to demolish a building on West 79th Street are calling on the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission to take a closer look at the building's historical merits.

In a letter to the LPC and local elected officials, Robert Withers, whose apartment on West 80th Street overlooks the rear of 203-209 West 79th Street, said "there is a major error of fact that has crept into these hearings: the idea that the existing building was totally demolished in the 1970s."

The building was originally four separate row houses built in 1896-97 that were combined into one apartment building in the 1970s, according to Dept. of Building records. The original front-facing Renaissance Revival façade visible on West 79th Street was replaced with a brick façade.

Although the building isn't land-marked, it resides in the Upper West Side ? Central Park West Historic District and the developer, Anbau Enterprises, must first receive LPC approval before making any changes to it.

In a hearing before the LPC, Anbau said there are no traces of the original row houses due to the work done in the 1970s, and therefore the building has no historical merit. Its initial application to demolish the building and replace it with a 16-story luxury residential building was denied by the LPC, but not in the interest of historical preservation.

Anbau will likely come back before the LPC with a more palatable plan that nonetheless involves demolishing the building. Anbau did not respond to a request for comment.

The LPC considers the building as having a modern style façade, and three commissioners agreed at the recent hearing that the building could be demolished without any significant impact to the surrounding historical district. However, residents of the West 80th Street building are seeking to challenge that assumption.

Withers said although the four row houses were combined in the 1970s, "it is not true that the original townhouses were demolished and that there is no trace of them. Many of us who live in the row houses on the south side of 80th Street have a clear view of the back of this building. The surface has been stuccoed over, but clearly displays important design elements and architecture of the original townhouse."

The original features Withers points to are three garden terraces on the middle and upper floors of the West 79th Street building and a private garden on the ground level that features 20-foot high rose bushes and trees.

Gina Higginbotham, who's lived in the same building as Withers for 38 years, and whose apartment also overlooks the West 79th Street building, said there's significant opposition in the community to Anbau's plan, and that critics packed a Community Board 7 landmarks committee meeting and the recent LPC hearing to voice their displeasure with the prospect of a luxury residential building in the area.

The project also has significant detractors in Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal, and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer. The adjacent Lucerne Hotel on West 79th Street, which was designated a landmark by the LPC, has hired a lawyer to fight Anbau's proposal.

While the noise, dust and debris will be a significant nuisance to Higginbotham and others in the neighborhood, she said she's more concerned that Anbau will build right up to her kitchen window. As it stands now, there's about 15 feet of space between her kitchen window and the West 79th Street building.

"On a personal level I'm more worried their bathrooms are going to be in my kitchen, there's going to be no air or light in this apartment," said Higginbotham. "The other thing that bothers me on a broader level is the inhumanity and mean-spiritedness of picking a building where people are going to be displaced."

Higginbotham said she knows people in the West 79th Street building that have lived there for 30 years, and has watched their kids grow up. According to her, local residents are mostly against the plan "because it will throw people out of their homes."

But according to Jacqueline Peu-DuVallon, a historical preservation expert working in Manhattan who also used to work for the LPC, the building is unlikely to have retained any of the original character that would be of interest to the commission.

"It's inconsequential in this case, it's your typical row house rear. There's nothing special about it," said Peu-DuVallon.