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'That's Like Cutting The Baby In Half': Chelsea Preservationists Oppose Rear Demolition Of Historic Rowhouse

418 West 20th Street
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418 West 20th Street Elizabeth Kim / Gothamist

Preservationists and neighbors are fighting a Chelsea homeowner’s plan to demolish and expand the back of a nearly $8 million rowhouse, saying that such a move would ruin the uniform look and character of a prized group of homes built around 1840.

The renovation plan, which is expected to be discussed during a public hearing held today by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, involves building out into the rear yard and enlarging the basement and rooftop at 418 West 20th Street, a house included as part of the Chelsea Historic District. The project would increase the square footage of the building by 525 square feet, to 6,018 square feet.

In New York, the exteriors of landmarked residences and those in historic districts are protected under the city’s landmark law, but in practice, the commission has been lenient with approving rear alterations except in cases where the back of the buildings are visible to the public. As a result, in a practice known as façadism, an increasing number of wealthy townhouse owners, including speculative investors, have sought to expand their properties by excavating the basements and demolishing the rears. For owners, rear alterations represent a kind of practical compromise, saving a historic home’s most publicly visible and important architectural features while creating additional interior space. But among its detractors, such renovations fly in the face of real preservation.

“To me, that’s like cutting the baby in half,” said David Holowka, a retired architect who is a member of Save Chelsea, a neighborhood preservation group. “The façade doesn’t have any meaning once it’s cut off from the substance behind it.”

Last month, Community Board 4 unanimously voted to recommend denying the application, urging the commission to allow some removal of the roof but limiting work on the rear addition to “within its existing profile.”

Not surprisingly, the backloading of density onto historic facades has pitted wealthy neighbors against longtime homeowners and preservationists. Last month, the New York Times reported on the lengthy demolition and basement excavation of two newly joined Upper West Side brownstones where jackhammering noises have outraged neighbors.

According to Kelly Carroll, the director of advocacy and community outreach at the Historic Districts Council, applications for rear yard demolitions to historic row houses typically "follow the money," cropping up in brownstone-lined neighborhoods like the Upper East and West sides, Greenwich Village, Chelsea, and Brooklyn Heights. But in recent years, they have also started to pop up in such gentrifying parts of Brooklyn as Fort Greene, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Crown Heights.

“It’s kind of like how rich people say they’ve made it,” she said. “It’s not enough to own a townhouse, they have to dig below it and expand as much as possible.”

For critics and regular Joes, such supersizing, which in the case of the noisy Upper West Side renovation will allow the owner to build an indoor pool, is overly indulgent. As Carroll pointed out, the homes "were built as mansions."

But the proposed renovation of 418 West 20th Street is especially distressing to preservationists because the building is part of a cherished group of seven Greek Revival row homes known as “Cushman Row.” Named for the developer responsible for building most of Chelsea, the stretch has been considered one of the best preserved collections of uniform townhouses in New York City.

Andrew Berman, the executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, said: "The proposed changes to 418 West 20th St. would obliterate this integral piece of one of New York City’s most iconic architectural ensembles, Cushman Row. Approving this would not only destroy the integrity of this Row, but set a terrible precedent for allowing similar destruction of landmarked 19th-century houses in New York City."

Although many rear renovations remain hidden from the public, the back of Cushman Row, which abuts a New York City Housing Authority parking lot on 19th Street, is highly visible to passersby. On a rainy Monday, Holowka walked Gothamist to the parking lot where the homes stood beyond a fence and a few small trees. During the winter, he said, the view was even less obstructed.

He pointed out the buildings' "tea porches," small balconies with short wrought-iron fences which overlook the back gardens. In 2006, the landmarks commission approved an application for 418 West 20th Street which sought to redo its back windows and extend its tea porch slightly, noting that the extension would “not further detract from the altered rear facade of the building or from Cushman Row.”

The 2006 assessment would be encouraging for preservationists were it not for a more recent and controversial ruling by the commission on an application for 404 West 20th Street, a building that bookends Cushman Row to the east. Built in 1830, it holds the distinction of being the oldest house in Chelsea. In 2015, a banker named Ajoy Veer Kapoor purchased the property for $7.4 million.

Arguing that the house was structurally unsound, Kapoor applied to demolish the entire rear as well as other portions of the building. Following a neighborhood outcry, Kapoor scaled back his plans, although not to the satisfaction of preservation groups. In 2016, the Landmarks Preservation Commission voted to issue a permit for renovation.

At the time, Save Chelsea and other preservation groups heavily criticized the commission’s chair, Meenakshi Srinivasan, for catering to real estate interests. Srinivasan, who endured a rocky tenure, resigned in April 2018. The commission is now chaired by Sarah Carroll (no relation to Kelly), who had previously been a staff member of the commission since 1994.

Holowka said the application on 418 West 20th Street would be the first real test for the new commission chair on the issue of rear demolitions. According to a letter that CB4 sent to the LPC, the building’s owner—identified by Holowka as David Lesser—appeared at a board hearing where his architect argued that the rear wall has structurally deficiencies. Preservationists said they expect the owner will try to point to what happened with 404 West 20th Street as a precedent.

Lesser did not respond to messages left for him at his office and with his architect, West Chin Architects.

Kelly Carroll, however, argued that the two cases are different. Among the differences is that unlike 404 West 20th Street, the current building in question is part of a historic row of buildings that were built together and are alike in style.

“This is an intact row,” Carroll said.

Further escalating concerns about rear townhouse renovations is the fact that many are driven by real estate speculation. Even after the battle over the renovation permit, work has to begin at 404 West 20th Street, according to Holowka. In April, the house was briefly on the market for $9.9 million—$2.5 million over its original purchase price.

There are worries that the same strategy is being used for 418 West 20th Street, which was sold for $7.9 million in April.

Kelly Carroll, who regularly reviews rear demolition applications to the Landmarks Preservation Commission, said they follow "a distinct pattern: excavation, rear yard addition, and roof addition." The floor plan, volume, and scheme of the proposed renovation at 418 West 20th Street, she added, “screams speculation.”

UPDATE: A previous version incorrectly reported that the owner David Lesser spoke at a Community Board 4 hearing. According to Holowka, Lesser appeared at the hearing but his architect spoke before the board.

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