Posted Mar 11, 2022 9:11 a.m. by West Side Rag
By Joy Bergman
This question has bothered me for years. What’s up with those decrepit – apparently abandoned – townhouses at 231-233 West 74th Street, just behind Fairway?
A few weeks ago, I decided to find out.
My first Google gave a chuckle. WSR contributor Maria Gorshin tried to solve the same mystery in December 2011calling them “clumsy horrors”, “toad-ugly” and “sad”.
In 2006, Christopher Gray, the late New York Times architecture detective, investigated the twin buildings. “They now look almost empty, with torn blinds on the windows,” he wrote. “In the whitewater rapids of Upper West Side real estate, this desperate pair is a cool, shady little whirlwind, a shipwreck of time.”
Now plywood covers many windows. Garbage is piling up on the outside stairs. Buildings Department records show three open “maintenance faults”; building in poor condition” offenses of the last two years. The mood changed from hopeless to hopeless.
Who is responsible for these properties?
Gray identified The Beekman Estatea corporation, as the owner, but the corporation denied ownership when Gorshin made his attempt.
Today, the Beekman estate website lists two other companies as landowners: 231 West 74th Street Corp. and 233 West 74th Street Corp., with Mt. Pleasant Management Corp. as managing agent.
Property records – including the most recent deeds from 1995 – show that several “address” companies are involved. All entities share the same Lexington Avenue address and CEO, according to records of the New York Secretary of State.
The 231 and 233 W. 74th Street Corps vice president agreed to answer WSR’s questions about the properties, but asked not to be named. The vice president said he did not own the companies and was only a “representative of the owner”.
The following Q&A email with the VP has been edited for clarity and supplemented with background information.
Q: What were the plans for 231-233 West 74th Street in 1995 when the owners bought it?
A: The owners are not developers, but are used to renovating, repositioning and letting older properties and retaining them for the long term. Such were – and are – the plans for 231-233 West 74th Street.
Q: Over the next 26+ years, the property has received landmark designation by the Monuments Preservation Commission [LPC] as a member of West End-Collegiate Historic District Extension.
In its 2013 report, LPC noted the Queen Anne style structures – built in 1886 by the Ansonia developer WED Stokes and designed by the architect William J. Merritt — seemed vacant and were covered with netting.
Since LPC must approve all work plans for the property (with a few exceptions), what are your immediate next steps to improve the structures?
A: In the short term, we have filed applications for a “façade reconstruction”. When the building is fully vacant, our plan is to renovate and lease the brownstones. We are eager to get the job done; it’s always good to bring back a building.
[An LPC spokesperson confirmed the facade work application has been in process since September 2021; the VP said his team is procuring an engineering report LPC requested before LPC may proceed with their final review and decision.]
Q: The 2006 NYT article mentioned that landlords were waiting for “the last of the tenants to leave”. Multiple sources tell me someone is still living in a basement, over 15 years later. I tried to reach him myself. HPD records show the property has a history of regulated units. What’s going on?
A: The official tenant moved to Cascais, Portugal some time ago. We believe he has since died. There is an ongoing court case with the occupiers which is contested but pending due to negotiation. The idea is to minimize disputes and possibly relocate the tenant to another apartment under a legal lease. The possible relocation apartment is finished and awaiting the certificate of occupancy of the building, which we hope to obtain shortly.
Q: Has a takeover offer been made?
A: As far as a ‘buyout’ goes, owners are long-term tenants – not developers/builders, so there’s no ‘pot of gold’ to offer. The end result will hopefully be a beautiful restoration of rental apartments. There are no planned sales to developers or condo offers, which are the usual driver of buyout offers.
Q: How has this remaining rental changed your plans for the property?
A: The plan was to renovate the building 10 years ago. Non-harassment certificates were obtained and renovation plans were filed in May 2012, but the plans were delayed due to the remaining occupier. We actually got permits for 233 West 74th Street, but we weren’t able to get renovation permits for 231 West 74th Street because of the one occupied apartment.
The buildings and facades of 231 and 233 were constructed at the same time and are essentially part of the same structure; they share a party wall (the load-bearing wall between the two buildings) and a very heavy stoop. As a result, we were advised that it would not be possible to work on 233 until we could work on 231 and 233 simultaneously (the contractor and the architect both thought it was safe to work on the pair at the same time, but it wasn’t logical or safe to work on just one). Essentially, fixing one side would endanger the other.
Q: Another property involved in Beekman Estate at 228-230 West 75th Street [also Merritt-designed-Stokes-developed-and-landmarked row houses] has undergone a recent renovation. Is this a good model of what you’re hoping for on 74th Street?
A: Properties have different owners; they are very different buildings. But yeah, that’s the general idea.
Q: In a best-case scenario, what does the future of the 74th Street property look like and in what time frame?
A: Ideally the buildings would be completely renovated/rebuilt and rented out as apartments, perhaps with 3-4 apartments in each building. Hopefully something can be done in 2-3 years, but maybe that’s optimistic.
Q: This will not please the neighbors. “Heinous,” “abandoned,” “rat heaven,” and “ruined” are some of the adjectives they use to describe 231-233 W. 74th. How do you respond to their concerns?
A: We are looking forward to renovating the property. I’m sure the neighbors aren’t happy, but we’re trying to keep the buildings as best we can given the delayed renovation plans.
Our super cleans the sidewalk and bends daily, we have regular visits from exterminators and we have lights and a security camera. We sometimes have the same homelessness issues as West Side Cloth reported. Unfortunately we also have a number of people using the retreat area as a bathroom.
We do not see rodents in the buildings. With only one occupied apartment, we have a minimum of waste. This occupied apartment is in the basement and they have not reported any rodents in the building.
Q: Is the property structurally sound?
A: Obviously the purpose of the work is to ensure that the buildings are structurally sound and that the engineers are part of the ongoing review. We would have preferred to be allowed to do this work years ago when it was first tabled.
Not really reassuring. WSR turned to the Department of Buildings.
“During our last inspection of both properties, we saw no evidence that the buildings were structurally unstable or posed an imminent danger to neighbors,” a DOB spokesperson said by email.
The Monuments Act also requires properties to be kept in good condition, and the LPC has an enforcement department to ensure they are, an LPC spokesperson wrote to WSR.
“But our goal is to protect landmarks and not penalize owners,” she said. With respect to the 231-233 W. 74th Street properties, “LPC has taken no enforcement action as the owner is already taking steps to make repairs.”
Some readers may have heard of Fairway being involved in properties at some point. Mortgage documents appear to show some leasehold interests in the early 2000s.
But, according to a brief conversation with Dan Glickberg, the Fairway founder’s great-grandson, the family and their business partners “have nothing to do” with the properties these days. Fairway was acquired by Wakefern Food Corp. in 2020. A Wakefern spokesperson did not respond to emails from WSR.
And so, after digging through dozens of documents and consulting with local experts, do I know for sure Who owns these buildings? No.
But whoever they are, they now know that the community is watching them and will hold them accountable for making things better. Hopefully it doesn’t take another 10 years.
Thanks to GB, BT and SK for research assistance.