39-Unit Affordable Development Approved in Harlem Historic District

Rendering of the proposed building at 841 St. Nicholas Avenue. Image credit: LPC

Seven-story building would have dance studio space at the ground floor. On June 27, 2017, Landmarks considered and approved a proposal for a new development on a vacant lot at 841 St. Nicholas Avenue, at the corner of 152nd Street, in the Hamilton Heights/Sugar Hill Northwest Historic District. The site was acquired by BRP Development Company from the Dance Theater of Harlem in 2016. A deed restriction on the property, limiting its use to non-profit cultural organizations, was controversially lifted in the same year.

After the new structure is built, the dance company will occupy space on the ground floor. Micah Hunter, from the City’s Housing Preservation and Development agency, said the development would host 39 units, all “100 percent affordable,” furthering the mayoral affordable housing agenda.

Architect Shaneekua Henry, of SLM Architecture, said the proposal took inspiration from the architecture of the district, and presented examples of six- and seven-story brick-clad structures in the neighborhood and buildings with corner storefronts. The six-story-plus-penthouse building would have a pre-cast stone base, mimicking historic limestone, with red brick cladding on the upper levels.

Corbeling at the second floor, and projecting horizontal bands above the first, second, and fifth floors also paid homage to the architecture of the district’s 20th century apartment buildings and divide the building into a distinct base, middle and top. Windows would be composed of gray aluminum, with metal panels beneath them. The building’s rear and sidewalls would be faced with stucco. Windows would also wrap around the corner at the residential floors, as would the glass storefront at the base.  Brick coursing would accentuate the building’s prominent corner.

The new structure would be close in alignment with the cornices of adjoining buildings. A minimally visible penthouse would be setback above the black fiberglass cornice.

The Historic District Council’s Patrick Waldo said the project was conceptually appropriate, but needed refinement in many of its details. Waldo criticized the “bizarre” corner windows, the air-conditioning units, the “inappropriately proportioned” band of precast concrete above the fifth floor, and argued that single punched openings would be more appropriate than the proposed double-hung windows. Signe Harriday, speaking on behalf of the co-op at 849 St. Nicholas Avenue, generally supported the application, but expressed concerns about preserving the integrity of scale in the block’s streetwall, and wanted to ensure that the project did not “dwarf the architectural grandeur that is distinct to our block.” Harriday also criticized some design details of the proposal.

Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan noted that Community Board 9 did not object to the proposal.

Commissioner Fred Bland said the proposal was a suitable “contextual infill building,” and that the applicants did a commendable job crafting an appropriate proposal for the historic district while serving their “overriding concern” of creating affordable housing.

Commissioner Michael Devonshire said the building looked “stubby,” and suggested that the second floor be better articulated, or that a two-story base be considered. Goldblum further found that the corner windows should be revised in their size and height. Commissioner Jeanne Lutfy concurred.

Commissioner John Gustafsson commented that the building could stand to be even taller, as corner buildings were often higher than their neighbors.

Chair Srinivasan said the proposal was appropriate as presented, and that there existed a need to balance programmatic needs in applications involving affordable housing. She said the project demonstrated that affordable housing projects “can also have aesthetic value,” and urged commissioners to approve the application. She did ask that the applicants continue to work with Landmarks staff on the details.

841 St Nicholas Avenue, Manhattan (19-12025) (June 27, 2017) (Architect: SLM Architecture).

By: Jesse Denno (Jesse is a full-time staff writer at the Center for NYC Law).

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