Real Estate

Another Landmark Lost, This Time on Astor Row in Harlem

Many New Yorkers assume that a historic building, once the city designates it a landmark or includes it in a historic district, is protected from demolition. But that idealized notion of preservation has been smashed in recent weeks, as if by a wrecking ball, from Harlem to the meatpacking district.

On Astor Row in Harlem — a celebrated strip comprising 28 brick homes that were individually declared landmarks — an 1883 house at 28 West 130th Street was unceremoniously razed last month. The landmark’s demise was the culmination of decades of neglect and months of missed opportunities involving an acrimonious tangle of players.

And downtown, at Ninth Avenue and 14th Street, nine 1840s pitched-roof rowhouses in the Gansevoort Market Historic District are being partially demolished under an emergency order from the Department of Buildings.

The city issued the order to deconstruct the Ninth Avenue buildings’ facades by hand after a developer’s engineer reported — and city engineers confirmed — that the facades were detaching from the structures and were in danger of collapse. Tavros Capital, the developer, has agreed to salvage the facade bricks and rebuild the houses to the extent possible, with all work to be reviewed by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Preservation groups, Gale Brewer, the Manhattan borough president, and State Assemblywoman Deborah J. Glick called for an immediate halt to the demolition and a full exploration of ways to safely stabilize and repair the houses rather than tearing down significant parts of them. Preservationists have also questioned whether the structural instability was indeed pre-existing, as the city maintains, and not caused or exacerbated by Tavros’s workers, who had been altering the houses as part of a city-approved plan to put up a connected office building on a lot behind them.

The facades of nine pitched-roof rowhouses that wrap around the corner of Ninth Avenue and 14th Street, in the Gansevoort Market Historic District, are being deconstructed by hand under an emergency order from the Department of Buildings.Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times
The rowhouses at 44-54 Ninth Avenue, now under partial demolition, in 2002.Credit…Village preservation Historic Image Archive

The destruction uptown, on Astor Row, was more complete. As neighbors looked on, workers on a cherry picker methodically dismantled No. 28 with a chipping gun, creating a gaptoothed streetscape out of what had been, for 138 years, a pleasingly homogeneous row.

The emergency demolition was ordered for public safety by the Department of Buildings and performed by contractors hired by the city, after a failed nine-year campaign by the Landmarks Preservation Commission to compel the owner of the ruinously deteriorated house to repair it. The owner, a 69-year-old public-school nurse, said she could not afford the work and had tried unsuccessfully to obtain a loan.

“This demolition is a rare occurrence,” said Zodet Negrón, the landmarks commission spokeswoman. “The vast majority of the over 37,000 properties in historic districts or individually designated landmarks are maintained by responsible owners.”

Astor Row’s 14 pairs of three-story red-brick homes, known for their charming, Victorian-style wooden porches, were built between 1880 and 1883 on land bought decades earlier by the shrewd real estate magnate John Jacob Astor. Fronted by 20-foot-deep gardens, ornamental cast-iron fences and lintels carved with neo-Grec motifs, the row presented, as The New York Times put it, “a picture of domestic tranquillity and comfort” possessed by “few other dwelling blocks in the city.”

By the time the city gave the row landmark status in 1981, several of the houses were run-down, some with missing porches. No. 28, which had been seized by the city for nonpayment of taxes in 1977, was vacant and sealed with concrete blocks. But the landmark designation report nonetheless described the house as “a vital component of the unique group of buildings known as Astor Row.”

No. 28 West 130th Street around 1981, the year the house on Astor Row was designated a city landmark. Although in serious disrepair and sealed with concrete blocks, the dwelling retained its distinctive wooden porch, a hallmark of the historic row.Credit…Landmarks Preservation Commission

In 1986, Nina Justiniano, the school nurse, bought No. 28 for $27,999 with her mother, who has since died. The house had a hole in the roof and dangerous, caved-in floors.

Ms. Justiniano planned to fix the house and move in, she said in an interview, but with the crack epidemic raging, she was frightened to relocate there and instead kept her family in Queens. Her fears were justified. In the 1990s, one Astor Row neighbor began sleeping with a machete after repelling an intruder with a baseball bat.

The dilapidated homes of Astor Row were rejuvenated beginning in 1992, after Brooke Astor happened upon them during a tour. The widow of a great-great-grandson of the Astor patriarch, she initiated a $1.7 million restoration of the row’s porches. The work, overseen by the New York Landmarks Conservancy, grew into a $3.1 million project that repaired 25 of the 28 porches, as well as crumbling chimneys and facades.

But according to the Conservancy, the group never worked with Ms. Justiniano because of her house’s extremely poor condition and the amount of work it needed.

In 2012, John Weiss, the landmarks commission’s deputy counsel, cautioned Ms. Justiniano that a landmark’s owner was obligated to keep it waterproof and structurally sound. He also emailed her, he recalled, “saying the Buildings Department, if repairs weren’t made, could order demolition” at her expense and that the commission would then sue her.

When Ms. Justiniano did not bring the house into good repair, the chairman of the landmarks commission ordered her to do so in 2013. After that effort failed, the City of New York and the landmarks commission sued in New York State Supreme Court in 2015, to compel her to fix the building, whose interior walls and floors had collapsed and whose roof was mostly fallen in. The judge ruled in the city’s favor.

“Usually that’s the end of the story,” Mr. Weiss said. “Most owners get a court order from a judge ordering them to make repairs, and they do it, or they sell the building. That didn’t happen.”

Astor Row, where many homes are well maintained, in 2009.Credit…Hiroko Masuike for The New York Times

More court orders followed, and in 2019 Ms. Justiniano was held in contempt of court. Still the landmark was not brought into good repair, and the city was hitting her with fines.

From 2012 on, offers came in to buy the house. But Ms. Justiniano wasn’t selling.

“It was my dream,” she said in a text message, to live in a house near the cold-water tenement where she had grown up. “I had promised my family. To disappoint them was my greatest failure in life.”

She said she had tried “off and on, for years,” to get a loan for repairs, and even sold her house in Queens in 2016 with the aim of moving into Astor Row. Last year, she lined up a $1.4 million loan, which fell through when Covid hit.

Finally, in April 2021, nine years after the city first asked her to make repairs, she listed No. 28 for sale for $900,000, more than 30 times what she had paid for it.

The roofless, floorless landmark attracted two offers, she said: one for $1.1 million, and another for slightly less from Maryam Rakshan, an engineer who owns a contracting business with her husband, Martin Malek, also an engineer. The couple hoped to rehabilitate the home and move in.

“We fell in love with the street and the structures,” Mr. Malek said. “And the neighbors, nosy as they were, were very nice people.”

Had Ms. Justiniano sold the house then, she could probably have walked away with several hundred thousand dollars in profit, even after paying her mountain of city fines, which by July would total $359,000. And a new owner could have restored the long-suffering landmark.

But that’s not what happened.

After meeting Mr. Malek at a nearby Red Lobster, Ms. Justiniano said in the interview, she decided to accept his wife’s offer. But whether the parties ever entered into a contract is in dispute.

On June 29, Buildings Department engineers determined that elements of No. 28 had already collapsed, and that the building was no longer structurally stable. The emergency demolition order was issued.

Two days later, a scrum of interested parties descended on the decrepit landmark. City officials solicited bids from demolition contractors, while Ms. Justiniano, Mr. Malek and Mr. Weiss hoped to save the house.

After the Buildings Department gave Mr. Malek a list of requirements that needed to be met to put a hold on the demolition, he approached the home’s owner.

No. 28 West 130th Street around 1940, when it was still in good repair.Credit…Municipal Archives, City of New York

“I said, ‘Listen, Nina, if you’re interested, I could save the property, but you have to sign the contract,’” Mr. Malek recalled, referring to a contract to sell the building and land to him for $980,000. “And the city needed her to allow me to act as her agent and do necessary construction and stabilization to save the building from collapse.”

Ms. Justiniano signed the form naming Mr. Malek as her agent and had it notarized.

“I signed it under duress,” she said in the interview, “because they were all sitting there telling me they’re going to tear the building down.”

She added, “I signed it because Marty said he was going to buy the building.”

Although the situation had reached a critical moment, the landmark was still not beyond rescue.

“The building could have been braced and stabilized and rebuilt — that’s what I was doing,” Mr. Malek said. “I wasn’t doing it for anyone else’s benefit. I was planning to go live there.”

With Buildings Department approval, Mr. Malek initiated a plan to partially demolish the rear wall, reframe interior floors and take other remedial action to make the site safe. But with city inspectors monitoring his every move and periodically requiring expensive new protections, Mr. Malek quickly found the job’s cost climbing.

“I contacted Nina, her broker and her attorney, and said, ‘This house has been neglected for years, and just to make the structure so the city gets out of your hair, I have to pay $450,000,’” Mr. Malek recalled. “‘I didn’t sign up for that, I need a $200,000 price reduction.’”

Although his wife had signed a contract to buy the house in “as is” condition, he said, she had done so before the demolition order drastically changed the circumstances, and before he had been allowed to view the ruined interior.

On July 25, Mr. Weiss, the landmarks lawyer, emailed Gabriel A. Levy, one of Ms. Justiniano’s lawyers, to report that Mr. Malek was planning to cancel his purchase of the house and stop work the next day because issues surrounding the sale were not being resolved. If work ceased, Mr. Weiss wrote, demolition was likely imminent.

“The only reason your client’s building is not already demolished is because Mr. Malek over the past few weeks has been addressing the requirements” of the Buildings Department, Mr. Weiss wrote. “Mr. Malek has spent tens of thousands of dollars and many long days having emergency work undertaken” on the house, “which cannot continue if the sale is not occurring.”

Mr. Weiss then warned that if the landmark were demolished, the commission would sue Ms. Justiniano for the market value of the structure and “a very significant lien for the demolition cost will also be placed on the property.”

No. 28 West 130th Street in 2015, the year the city sued the building’s owner in New York State Supreme Court to compel her to make repairs to the long-suffering landmark. The judge ruled in the city’s favor.Credit…Landmarks Preservation Commission

On July 30, Mr. Levy emailed Mr. Malek and Ms. Justiniano a contract that called for her to pay him $200,000 for enumerated construction work items that “NYC is requiring at a minimum to prevent demolition.”

But the deal collapsed.

“Why must I pay him to fix the building?” Ms. Justiniano said in the interview. “You agreed to it ‘as is.’”

Disenchanted with Mr. Malek, Ms. Justiniano was seeking new buyers. On July 29, John J. Ciafone, one of her lawyers, went so far as to prepare a $1 million contract of sale with one. In early August, Mr. Malek said, a prospective buyer called him to say that he was negotiating to buy the house.

“I tell him, ‘You’re more than welcome to buy it,’” Mr. Malek recalled, “‘but you have to satisfy my lien and you must immediately retain a professional engineer to stand there for eight- to 10-hour days to monitor the work. Otherwise, the city will demolish it.’” The new buyer backed out. On Aug. 9, Mr. Malek filed a mechanic’s lien for $234,000.

That same day, another potential deal surfaced, Mr. Malek said. He said he received a call from Stacie Saunders, Ms. Justiniano’s real estate agent, telling him that Ms. Justiniano wanted a quick closing at $400,000. Mr. Malek would then be responsible for city violations and attendant fines.

Mr. Malek texted Ms. Saunders asking her to have a lawyer revise the contract accordingly. Ms. Saunders replied, “I’m on it. Nina’s attorney wants to just transfer the deed for $400k. Can we just set a closing and get this done?” Ms. Saunders declined to comment.

Again, no deal ever closed. And on Aug. 20, Mr. Malek notified the Buildings Department that he was stopping work. He then replaced his existing lien with a larger one for $450,000, which he said included the cost of his engineering services and his time overseeing the job on site.

The city-ordered demolition of No. 28 West 130th Street created a gaptoothed streetscape out of what had been, for 138 years, a pleasingly homogeneous row.Credit…Katherine Marks for The New York Times

The Buildings Department found that the house was still in danger of collapse, and on Aug. 23 department engineers issued a second order to immediately raze the building. When Ms. Justiniano failed to do so, city demolition contractors were brought in. By mid-October, the 138-year-old landmark was a memory.

“I think the Landmarks Preservation Commission did all they could here,” said Peg Breen, president of the Landmarks Conservancy. “We all thought it was a big step when L.P.C. got the right to take an owner to court.”

The commission now plans to sue Ms. Justiniano for the value of the demolished landmark, perhaps just under $1 million, Mr. Weiss said.

It is also standard procedure, when city contractors perform an emergency demolition on behalf of an owner, for the cost of that work to be billed to the owner by means of a lien on the subject property. In this case, that cost was $550,000, said a spokesman for the Department of Housing Preservation and Development.

So why would the city destroy the house instead of stabilizing it?

A Buildings Department spokesman said that the department “does not refer emergency declarations for city contractors to make repairs at buildings owned by private parties.” The safe repair and maintenance of a building, even a landmark, is the responsibility of the property owner, he said.

No one knows what building will next rise on the vacant lot that now rudely interrupts Astor Row midway between Fifth and Lenox Avenues. The Landmarks Preservation Commission often de-designates the sites of demolished individual landmarks. But if this site’s landmark status remains in place, it will be up to the owner to present new building plans and argue that the proposed structure is “appropriate” to the location. The commission will have the final word on that issue.

Whatever happens, however, two sad neo-Grec stone lintels are all that remain of an 1883 landmark that once formed an integral part of one of Harlem’s proudest streets.

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