In 1899 a four-story structure rose on the northeast corner of 86th Street and York Avenue.
About a half century later, its lower level became home to The Mansion Dinner, a neighborhood icon for almost three quarters of a century. After 117 years, things are changing -- at least, all around the corner.
The windows of the two buildings immediately east of the corner (511 and 513 E. 86th St.) have been boarded closed and a green painted wooden fence has been erected. The adjoining building (515 E. 86)) is already marked with orange paint and will soon follow. On York Avenue, storefronts in the two buildings north of the corner are empty; one is marked “Demolition Site,” the other exhibits white painted windows. “The neighborhood is changing,” complained one Mansion patron. “‘They’re’ knocking down all the buildings.”
Not quite all, though the four- or five-story buildings typical of late 1800’s Yorkville are, indeed, likely targets of developers. Interest in the neighborhood has only grown as the Second Avenue subway nears completion. New restaurants and specialty shops are appearing again on Second Avenue.
New York City zoning regulations typically allow 16 story buildings on avenues and “double width” streets like 86th Street. A developer could apply for a Zoning Variance that would allow him to build a taller structure.
At the Mansion Diner, there’s a feeling of camaraderie. Regulars are greeted by first name, shake hands with managers, and leave saying, “See you tomorrow.” Many customers are older; some come more than once a day. Two or three generations may be seated at the same table.
The Mansion is changing, too. A manager remembers “we were here for the cabs. Until about five years ago, three were always three or four tables of cabbies. Everything is a thousand times more expensive - food, staff, regulations. In today’s market, things change so rapidly.”
John Philips is the third generation of his family to run the Mansion Diner. “Twenty years ago, Manhattan had 1,100 diners,” he notes. “More than half have closed. The business model of a diner is very flexible and should be recession proof. No matter what happens, people will go to a diner - providing prices are reasonable.”
Technology, says Philips, is affecting the way the Mansion operates. “It’s a changing business. Online ordering and delivery accounts for up to 50% of sales. We’ve created a production line - a phone order taker, an expediter, an order administrator, and a cashier - and 18 delivery people. It’s important to innovate, including opening another location on Second Avenue.”
We asked John Philips about future planning for his corner. “The Mansion will always have a place at the corner of 86th and York. We have to try to preserve the character and The Mansion itself. I want to be able to maintain the tradition of my grandfather and my father.”
Will there be changes on the northeast corner of 86th and York? “There have been approaches,” says Philips. “We’re not interested in selling, but, if the price is right....”