From the front lines of the New York City preservation wars, one landlord is trying to convince the Landmarks Preservation Commission to allow him to demolish two of his landmarked buildings on the Upper East Side – something the commission has only approved 11 times for the 27,000 landmarks it oversees. The only circumstance in which the commission allows buildings to be torn down is if they are losing money, and the landlord claims to be losing $1 million a year on the buildings, whose apartments have an average rent controlled/stabilized price of $600/mo. He’s offering to move all the current tenants into other units (I assume at the same price), and also redo the interiors of 13 other buildings, but the tenants are putting up a fight.
Architecturally the buildings are completely unremarkable, and in fact the façades were ruined by the landlord right before the buildings were landmarked in a futile attempt to stop it – an unfortunate but legal and unavoidable side effect of the current preservation process. The reason that the buildings are landmarked, though, is actually quite interesting and ironic:
Those buildings along York Avenue in the East 60s, part of a complex of 15 walk-ups built between 1898 and 1915, were designated landmarks in 2006 because they were examples of a Progressive Era effort to improve tenement design for low-wage earners. The tan brick buildings offered snug apartments that overlooked courtyards and let in more air and light than a typical tenement’s railroad flat.
The irony here is that the buildings were models for buildings that were supposed to be built in place of the “tenements” in neighborhoods like the Lower East Side – which back then were dark and dingy, but nowadays have had their interiors refurbished and are far more desirable than the buildings in question. That is to say, the tenements, many of which are now themselves landmarked, were intended to be torn down and replaced with these sorts of buildings, which let in more light and air. Of course now, a century later, skyscrapers with floor-to-ceiling windows soar above other buildings, and even in the most crowded parts of Midtown they let in far more light and air than these six-story walk-ups.
Aside from pointing out this historical irony, it’s worth emphasizing that of the fifteen original buildings, the landlord is only asking to tear down two. In keeping with the complete lack of perspective that characterizes the LPC (which, to be fair, has not yet denied the application), one tenant said five years ago that tearing down two of the buildings would be “akin to designating the Statue of Liberty, but not its torch.”