By Megan Bungeroth & Omar Crespo
Residents of the First Avenue Estates warily celebrate a win over the owner trying to tear down their building
Yorkville The Landmarks Preservation Commission issued a resounding "no" to a landmarked building's owner threatening the wrecking ball.
Stahl Organization, which owns two buildings on York Avenue between East 64th and East 65th Streets, has been trying to get permission to demolish the properties from the LPC since 2010. The company had filed a hardship application, claiming that it could not get a reasonable return from renting the small apartments, and sought the LPC's approval to bypass the landmark designation and destroy the buildings in order to erect new condo units on the property.
Last week, the drawn-out battle between Stahl, on one side, and current tenants, housing rights advocates, preservationists, elected officials and community board members on the other, came to a conclusion when the LPC voted unanimously to protect the six-story buildings.
While many of the units are currently empty, there are still people living in the First Avenue Estates, despite the Stahl Organization's assertions that the apartments are uninhabitable. A recent visit to the complex confirmed what many tenants have been saying - that the buildings have been neglected and left to deteriorate, regardless of the hardship that has imposed on current residents.
Now that the LPC has given its final decision in rejecting the hardship application, some tenants are hoping that their conditions will improve.
One resident, who did not want to give her name for fear of retaliation by management, said that she's been living at the First Avenue Estates for 17 years, and that she's seen first-hand how neglect has lead to problems.
"They have not done anything except let the building deteriorate," she said. "They do not take care of the walls and the marble floor; the scaffolding has been up for five years [and is now] used for pigeons coops."
The woman said she's one of only seven tenants in her section of the building, which could house 24 people. Many have accused Stahl of "warehousing" empty apartments intead of trying to rent them, in order to lend more credence to its hardship claim. In a report given to the LPC, Stahl claimed that it could only get $600 a month in rent for the units, a claim that the LPC rejected. Several tenants confirmed that they currently pay over $1,000 in rent. (Stahl has pledged to appeal the LPC decision.
"No one here is paying $600 bucks," said another resident, Peter, who said he is subletting in the building. "It is not a low- income housing building; some people are making upwards of $250,000 [a year]."
Murat Kalipci, 55, has lived in his one-bedroom apartment in First Avenue Estates for 20 years. He pays $956 in rent, and said that on top of worries about losing his long-time home, he's had to deal with untenable living conditions.
"They are not doing any work and they are bringing pigeons and rats," he said of the building's management. "I have to keep my windows closed."
Another tenant, attorney Monica McLaughlin, has lived in her apartment for 24 years and has become the unofficial spokesperson for the other residents. McLaughlin said that while it's a victory for tenants that the LPC denied the hardship claim, she is worried that Stahl still will not address the problems with the buildings' living conditions.
"I think their tactic was just to drag it out as along as possible, and possibly that they have enough political influence to change landmark law, I'm not sure," she said of the hardship application. "It was almost four years that they dragged the process out with the landmark application, and now they are putting in an appeal and they will drag that on as long as they can ."
McLaughlin ticked off a list of problems, including the fact that the security guards who patrol the complex walk around with intimidating Rottweilers, which another tenant also complained about.
"My concern now is that we, the tenants, are living in deplorable conditions," she said. "The lighting fixtures are out. The scaffolding has been on for years and it's a pigeon coop. There are rats and dog urine, it's just a filthy mess. The sidewalk underneath that scaffolding is all black and the sidewalk is all cracked. The scaffolding itself is all rusted and its just dangerous to look there. And the doors don't lock to the entrance to our apartment buildings."
McLaughlin, as well as other tenants, said that they receive little communication from the building management about the fate of the building and the status of repairs. McLaughlin also said that while she applauds the LPC's decision, she isn't holding her breath for things to change.
"I think now the tenants, we have to organize and we have to do more and we have to stop waiting," she said. ------
A Long Fight
The First Avenue Estate buildings, at 429 E. 64th St., and 430 E. 65th St., were constructed in 1898 and 1915.
They were designed for lower income New Yorkers as an alternative to dirty, crowded tenements, with courtyards that allow light and air into the apartments.
There are 190 apartments, with an average of 370 square feet.
The buildings were originally landmarked in 1990, but the Board of Estimates - the precursor to the City Council - appealed the LPC's decision in a late-night closed-door meeting, as one of its last acts before it was abolished. Preservationists had been fighting to re-establish the landmark status ever since, and achieved that in 2006.