Commission debates legalization of illegal addition

Architect testified that Buildings’ database failed to indicate that West 68th Street property was located within landmarked district. At its April 14th public hearing, Landmarks considered the legalization of a one-story, fifth-floor addition to a residential building at 12-14 West 68th Street in the Upper West Side/Central Park West Historic District. The 506 square-foot addition was built onto a 1925 studio building, itself built as an addition at the rear of the main 1895 Queen Annestyle house. The Commission also considered the legalization of an eight-foot wrought-iron fence.

The project’s architect, Lester Evan Tour, testified that he was hired to design the addition in 2004, and when he filed for permits with Buildings in September of 2005, the property’s landmark status did not appear in Buildings’ database. Plan examiners also failed to catch the oversight. Evan Tour took responsibility for the transgression, but added that he never intended to bypass Landmarks review. Evan Tour also stated that he had endeavored to create an addition that related well to its surroundings; he designed the addition with bricks similar to those already on the facade and with salvaged terra cotta capstones from the parapet wall the addition replaced.

Owner Thomas Haines testified that he bought the building in 1965, when the Upper West Side was an undesirable neighborhood, and made numerous improvements to the property over the years. He claimed he always tried to design renovations that reflected the character of the neighborhood. Haines added that he was ignorant of the Landmarks approval process, and believed Landmarks approached developers if unsatisfactory plans were submitted to Buildings. Haines’ wife, Polly Cleveland, explained that the antique wrought-iron fence was installed because the previous one provided inadequate security, and mentioned that there had been no objections to it from neighbors.

In response to questions from Commissioner Steven Byrns, Landmarks’ counsel Mark Silberman testified that the “L” (Landmark) designation for 12-14 West 68th Street had been missing from Buildings database for some time and was reinstalled in December 2006. Silberman further stated that, when reviewing illegal work in the past, Landmarks had limited its review to issues of appropriateness, and could not recall an instance where Landmarks, under similar circumstances, approved work that it found to be inappropriate.

Preservationists spoke in opposition to legalization. Kate Wood of Landmark West! stated that the addition was an “inappropriate intrusion on a lovely and unique historical ensemble.” Wood further argued that legalization would “undercut the public faith in the legitimate public review process.” The New York Landmark Conservancy’s Andrea Goldwyn stated that the organization could have approved a smaller, less visible addition, but not the one built. A representative of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation also spoke in opposition, stating that legalization would set a precedent with far-ranging effects. Nadezhda Williams, from the Historic Districts Council, testified that she believed “the Commission would not have approved this project before, and it certainly should not after.” Williams advocated for complete removal.

Several area residents also spoke at the hearing. The president of the adjacent Hotel des Artistes testified that the addition blocked light into many of the apartments. A local resident testified that many applications for additions had been reduced through the approval process, and that legalization here would “make a mockery of residents of historic districts who play by the rules.”

A representative of the West 68th Street Block Association, in contrast, testified that the owners were “upstanding leaders in the community who would not knowingly violate the law,” and added that the couple maintained the property well and contributed to the block’s revitalization.

Commissioners generally seemed to believe that the owners had made an honest mistake, but varied in their reactions as to how to respond. Byrns believed the owners had not intentionally skirted the law, but, nonetheless, did not think he could find the addition appropriate. Commissioner Margery Perlmutter stated that she found much of the public testimony to be overly harsh on the owners, and opined that it was easy to make mistakes when relying on expeditors and Buildings. Commissioner Roberta Brandes Gratz was less forgiving, stating that “you’d have to be living under a rock to not know it’s in a historic district,” and added that commencing construction without Landmarks’ permission amounted to a serious oversight. Commissioner Roberta Washington commented that she could not approve the addition at its current height.

Landmarks Chair Robert B. Tierney stated that the Commission would not act on the legalization just yet, and remarked that the issue posed a “difficult” problem for Landmarks. No date has been set for further discussion regarding legalization or potential alterations.

LPC: 12-14 West 68th Street, Manhattan (COFA# 09-6052) (April 14, 2009).

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