Physical alterations ruled irrelevant when assessing historical and cultural significance of two light-court tenements. Between 1898 and 1915, the City and Suburban Homes Company First Avenue Estate was built in Manhattan’s Upper East Side neighborhood. It consists of 15 light-court tenements, which are residential buildings configured to maximize light and air, in contrast to the tenements of the period. In April 1990, Landmarks voted to designate the Estate as a landmark site, encompassing the entire block bounded by East 64th and 65th Streets between York and First Avenues. The Board of Estimate approved designation for 13 of the Estates’ 15 buildings, but left the remaining two out for future redevelopment.
Stahl York Avenue Company LLC, current owner of the Estate, obtained building permits in late 2004 to replace windows and alter the facade of the two buildings left out of the 1990 designation. Under the permits, Stahl could, among other things, stucco the buildings’ brick facades, change the facade color from tan to red, and enlarge window openings. Approximately two years later, after Stahl had begun work under the permits, Landmarks unanimously voted to amend the Estate’s designation to include the two buildings. 3 CityLand 169 (Dec. 15, 2006). The City Council approved the amendment, and Stahl filed an article 78 seeking to reverse.
Stahl argued that Landmarks’ decision warranted reversal because there was no reason to believe that the two buildings held any architectural or historical significance as individual structures. Stahl also argued that there was no rational basis to group the two buildings with the other 13 because the recent construction work performed on the two buildings rendered them architecturally distinct from the others, and because the two groups were designed by different architects and were built on different sites at different times. Stahl further argued that City Council’s approval of the amendment was arbitrary and capricious since the Council did not express reasonable grounds for coming to a different conclusion than the Board of Estimate.
Justice Emily Jane Goodman disagreed with Stahl and ruled that Landmarks had a rational basis to amend the Estate’s designation to include the two buildings. Though the buildings may not have qualified individually for designation, Landmarks did not designate them as individual landmarks; rather, it included the buildings as part of the larger Estate. Goodman found that despite the two groups having different architects and construction timetables, the original developer’s intent was to construct a full block of light-court tenements, including the two left out by the Board of Estimate. Goodman further found that Landmarks based its decision on the historical and cultural significance of the Estate as a whole, not on individual architectural significance; as such, the physical alterations were of no consequence. The 1990 Landmarks designation report, which Landmarks partly relied on, described the Estate as significant because, as one of the last full-block light-court tenements remaining in the country, the Estate exemplifies the progressive housing efforts at the turn of the 20th century.
The court also ruled that City Council’s approval was not an arbitrary deviation from the Board of Estimate’s 1990 decision. Aside from the fact that the City Council and Board of Estimate could not be considered the same entity, Goodman found that the Council was authorized to consider a re-designation from Landmarks that the Board of Estimate or Council had previously rejected.
Stahl York Ave. Co. LLC v. New York City, Index No. 107666/2007 (N.Y. Cty.Sup.Ct. Sept. 11, 2008) (Goodman, J.) (Attorneys: Latham & Watkins LLP, for Stahl; Michael A. Cardozo, Virginia Waters, Mark A. Silberman, for NYC.)