Board of Estimate vote revisited 16 years later

Landmarks re-designates two City and Suburban Homes buildings carved out from 1990 designation. On November 21, 2006, Landmarks ended the controversial debate over the landmark status of the City and Suburban Homes Company’s First Avenue Estate in Lenox Hill by voting unanimously to amend its landmark status. In 1990, Landmarks unanimously designated all 15 buildings in the First Avenue Estate, a development constructed between 1898 and 1915 over the entire block bounded by East 64th and East 65th Streets and York and First Avenues. In its last meeting before being dissolved, the Board of Estimate carved out two buildings from Landmarks designation: 429 East 64th Street and 430 East 65th Street.

The buildings’ current owner, Stahl York Avenue Company, received permits from the Department of Buildings to remove cornices and parapets, enlarge window openings and stucco over the facades of the two buildings, spurring urgency to Landmarks’ vote.

The City and Suburban Homes Company, a limited-dividend company funded by such luminaries as Cornelius Vanderbilt and Darius Ogden Mills, built the full city-block housing complex for working families as an alternative to the poorly ventilated tenements of the day. Built to middle-class standards with increased light and air, courtyards and aesthetic features like marble banisters, City and Suburban Homes intended the project to occupy “a middle ground between pure philanthropy and pure business.” Shareholders voluntarily limited their dividends to five percent. The First Avenue Estate, designed primarily by James Ware and Philip H. Ohm, was one of the largest, pre- World War II high-density projects in the country, and a keystone in the history of the American social housing movement.

At the November 14th Landmarks hearing, preservationists, residents and elected officials argued that a vote to re-designate the buildings would “right a wrong,” pointing out that all the evidence needed for designation was present in the original designation report. Several speakers stressed that the Board of Estimate vote was “disgraceful.”

Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts representative Seri Worden argued that even if the owner stripped the buildings of all their ornament and covered their exterior with stucco, the site’s historic and social significance would remain. Moving testimony came from a neighborhood resident who grew up in a cold-water tenement and called the First Avenue Estate a “monument to what is good and decent about this city.”

Carol Gilder of the Real Estate Board of New York opposed designation, claiming that, while REBNY rarely opposed designation, “it simply does not meet the standard.”

Paul Selver, of the law firm Kramer Levin, represented the owners at the hearing. Selver argued that the two buildings did not meet the landmarks law standard for designation, which requires that a building be “special.” This requirement represented a higher standard than “significant,” according to Selver, and Landmarks could not fulfill it by mere “lip service.” Pointing out that the definition of special meant “singular,” Selver argued that the buildings were not the best or only examples of well-designed affordable housing in the city. Selver read from a City and Suburban Homes brochure, which stated that the company believed housing should incorporate the “best standards at the time.”

The Commission voted unanimously to designate. Landmarks emphasized in its designation report that the “similarities of size and scale between the various buildings on the block creates a strong sense of visual homogeneity” and that the First Avenue Estate “can be seen as an important achievement in the social housing movement.”

LPC: City and Suburban Homes Company First Avenue Estate, 429 E. 64th Street and 430 E. 65th Street (LP-1692) (Nov. 21, 2006).

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