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Battle Over Chelsea Townhouse Reflects War Being Waged in New York City’s Historic Districts

By Josh Barbanel

September 12, 2016

A stately townhouse in Chelsea that dates to the 1830s has become the latest flashpoint in a dispute over how best to preserve homes in New York City’s recognized historic districts.

Many neighbors want to keep homes in these quiet, leafy neighborhoods exactly as they are. And many architects and developers want to restore them by building upward and backward into rear gardens to add more space.

The most recent conflict: plans by [firm], a group of real estate, sports and media companies that owns the New York [sports team], to reconfigure a house at [address] from four apartments into a larger, single-family home.

[Firm] applied to add 2,200 square feet to the 4,600-square-foot house, including a setback fourth story and extensions to three stories that push back into the rear yard. The idea was rejected last month by the city Landmarks Preservation Commission.

At the hearing, commission Chairwoman Meenakshi Srinivasan called the rooftop addition “overwhelming.”

A revised application is scheduled to be back before the commission on Tuesday afternoon, with a plan for a smaller addition that is also opposed by residents and was opposed by the local Community Board. At a Community Board meeting last week, opponents wore matching green T-shirts as a gesture of solidarity.

The backdrop for the showdown is a pattern of townhouse renovations in the historic district in which the landmarks commission has allowed buyers to expand 19th-century homes. An extension and renovation on the oldest house in the Chelsea historic district, at 404 W. 20th St., was approved by the commission in August over community opposition, though it first had been scaled down by the commission.

“There is a very specific formula: Extend the rear out and built out as far as you can and build bulk on the roof,” said Kelly Carroll, director of advocacy and community outreach for the Historic Districts Council, a preservation group.

Adam Leitman Bailey, a lawyer who represents a next-door neighbor to [address] along with the local block association, said he believes the house—based on the scale of project—is being built as a mansion for a Sterling executive or partner.

But the company said the house, which it bought it for $8.5 million in 2015, was an investment property and that it previously had done work on a townhouse in Brooklyn Heights in a historic district.

It doesn’t make sense that in a city that is interested in sustainability, that you would take ground with grass and trees and allow it to be paved, especially in a historic district.—Carol Ott, co-chairwoman of the block association

“I am very happy that we have been victorious so far in this matter,” Mr. Bailey said. “Now the owners can spend more money on the [sports team] rather than building a McMansion in a neighborhood where it doesn’t belong.”

[Firm] representatives said their plans call for a careful restoration of the building front, including the re-creation of a Juliet balcony on the main level with period ironwork that was last documented in photographs from the 1920s.

They said the revised extensions wouldn’t be visible from across the street, though a small rear corner of a much trimmed back third story could be seen from a side view from the 1838 St. Peter’s Church next door. The architect is Andre Tchelistcheff, who has worked on many historic properties in New York.

Opponents include both longtime residents and newer, wealthy owners who have bought historic homes and are looking to preserve the neighborhood.

Bills for Mr. Bailey’s legal team are being paid by the next-door neighbors, Nicholas Griffin, a writer, and his wife, Adriana Cisneros, vice chairman and chief executive of Cisneros, a global media, entertainment and real-estate company. Mr. Leitman said Ms. Cisneros was unavailable for comment.

Previous confrontations over landmarked properties in Chelsea have raised the hurdles for [firm]. Carol Ott, co-chairwoman of the block association and publisher and editor of Habitat magazine, said residents are prepared to “actively protect” anything that violates what the district calls for.

“It is supposed to be frozen in a certain regard and that is attractive,” she said. “It also seems to attract developers who want to come in a punch a hole and built more bulk.”

The landmarks preservation commission usually focuses its reviews on portions of buildings that can be seen from the street.

But in Chelsea and in many historic districts, neighbors are pressing the panel to use its powers to protect backyard views in neighboring buildings.

“It doesn’t make sense,” Ms. Ott said, “that in a city that is interested in sustainability, that you would take ground with grass and trees and allow it to be paved, especially in a historic district.”

Appeared in the September 13, 2016, print edition as ‘Chelsea Battle Reflects Wider Landmarks War.’

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