Final Decision for 180 East 88th Street

FRIENDS and Carnegie Hill Neighbor’s Appeal Denied by the Board of Standards and Appeals BUT…


(Left) L-Shaped building lot pre-construction (Right) Rendering by DDG

In a vote of 4-1 last week, the Board of Standards and Appeals (BSA) voted to deny our appeal of 180 East 88th Street. In their comments, Commissioners acknowledged the deficiency of the Zoning Resolution’s text regarding this issue, but eventually conceded that the Department of Buildings (DOB) acted within its right to approve the subdivision of the zoning lot that created the micro-lot. Because the text does not prescribe a minimum lot size in this zoning district, the Commissioners therefore determined that DOB was reasonable in approving the 10 foot lot. 

Although we are disheartened by the BSA’s decision, the deferral of the issue to the Department of City Planning (DCP) underscores vocal efforts by FRIENDS, our fellow civic groups, and elected officials that DCP address these issues. As Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, and the entire Manhattan delegation of the City Council stated in a letter in August, DCP must pursue a


180 East 88th Street showing the carved-off portion of the lot in blue. Credit: George Janes and Associates

holistic set of solutions to address not only inter-building voids, but also tighten the definition of a zoning lot, and introduce restrictions on floor to ceiling heights. Mayor de Blasio and DCP have previously committed to addressing the mechanical void exemption by the end of the year, but have not made any further public statement since June.

Despite the ultimate ruling, several Commissioners suggested that a legislative solution is needed to disallow use of this loophole in future projects. Specifically, DCP should specify a minimum lot size for commercial districts within the text of the Zoning Resolution. Commissioner Salvatore Scibetta cast the sole vote in support of our appeal, stating in his verbal comments that the subdivision was a violation of the spirit of the Zoning Resolution. Further information on the BSA’s reasoning will be available when the written decision is released in the next several weeks. 

Clear legislative action on the part of the DCP is required to strengthen our city’s zoning rules so they provide the clarity, consistency, and predictability necessary to discern their intent, and to address the many types of loopholes exploited in service of unreasonable and out of scale buildings on the Upper East Side and in residential neighborhoods citywide.

FRIENDS, along with Carnegie Hill Neighbors and the support of our local elected officials, has been challenging the carved out 10 foot by 22 foot portion of 180 East 88th Street’s original zoning lot since October 2017. The decision follows two public hearings in July and October 2018. For additional background information on the project and the challenge, click HERE.

A Victory in the Fight Against Zoning Loopholes

City to Pull Permits for Extell’s UWS Supertower 


Rendering of previously approved design for 50 West 66th Street. Credit: Snøhetta

The Department of Buildings (DOB) has filed an Intent to Revoke its prior approval for a 39-story, 775 foot tall tower at 50 West 66th Street. Extell, the developer, first filed for a 25-story, 260 foot mixed-use structure back in 2015. However, post-approval amendments gave way to the Snohetta-designed tower with a 160 foot “mechanical” void at the base whose construction began in late 2017. Now, the DOB’s Manhattan borough commissioner has indicated that the inclusion of this excess empty space is “not customarily found in connection with residential uses.” The developer has 15 days to respond.

This reversal comes as a welcome surprise as the DOB had previously rejected a zoning challenge filed by Landmark West!, local Upper West Side residents, and Council Member Helen Rosenthal in November 2018.


NY1 News Anchor Pat Kiernan discussing the DOB’s decision on this morning’s news

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewerapplauded the DOB’s decision to revoke the previously-approved building form. In a statement last night she said, “By ruling that a mechanical space with a floor-to-floor height of 160 feet is not an ‘accessory use’ allowed under zoning, DOB correctly interpreted both the letter and the intent of the City’s zoning code. This is a victory not only for the Upper West Side, but for communities all over the city that find themselves outgunned by developers who try to bend or break zoning rules for massive private profit.” The Borough President, our local Council Members Ben Kallosand Keith Powers, and the Manhattan delegation of the City Council have long supported the efforts of FRIENDS of the Upper East Side and other advocacy groups in the fight against zoning loopholes.


Rendering of proposed design for 249 East 62nd Street. Credit: Rafael Viñoly Architects

50 West 66th Street is just one of many recent plans to create residential “buildings on stilts” that utilize void spaces excessive floor-to-ceiling heights, and other loopholes that serve as workarounds to the City’s Zoning Resolution. So far, it is unclear whether the West 66th Street decision will have a direct effect on the proposed building at 249 East 62nd Street, on the East Side, just steps away from the Treadwell Farm Historic District. In May 2018 the DOB approved the use of a similar mechanical void of 150 feet, but the West Side reversal signals a new perspective from the agency.

At a town hall meeting last year, Mayor Bill de Blasio committed to addressing the issue of exempt mechanical voids, but thus far, there have been no proposed amendments to the zoning resolution put forth by the Department of City Planning (DCP). DCP Chair Marisa Lago has publicly stated a package of solutions will be proposed by Summer 2019, despite the administration’s earlier commitment to enact a change by the end of 2018.

The “Ghostly Remnant” of St. Joseph’s Orphan Asylum on East 90th Street

The “Ghostly Remnant” of St. Joseph’s Orphan Asylum on East 90th Street
 
A monumental vestige of the Chapel of St. Joseph’s Orphan Asylum at 402 East 90th Street, viewed from the lot where the Spence School is set to construct a new athletic facility. Once completed, this facade will permanently be obscured. Photo: Sarah Greig Photography/FRIENDS of the Upper East Side
In “The Ghostly Remnant,” published yesterday in Our Town, journalist Douglas Feiden explores the curious development history of an apartment building on East 90th Street that bears the uniquely preserved facade of the Chapel of St. Joseph’s Orphan Asylum. The asylum’s campus occupied the land once owned by 19th Century stock broker and banker Nathaniel Prime, whose mansion remained on the block until roughly 1918. The chapel, constructed in the early 20th century, was later repurposed as an auto garage before its conversion to an apartment in the 1980’s. This remnant is set to be covered by the construction of the Spence School’s new athletic facility, to be completed in 2020.
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FRIENDS of the Upper East Side has been thoroughly documenting the cultural and architectural history of this block, and of this fascinating relic at 402 East 90th Street. As part of a former waterfront estate turned religious institution that served the civic, social, and religious needs of the German immigrant community, this site closely tracks the history of Yorkville that FRIENDS has long been dedicated to uncovering. This exquisite facade is one of the last surviving — and indeed the most striking — fragments of this particular strain of Yorkville’s history and it deserves to be remembered and celebrated. To learn more about the neighborhood, click HERE to view FRIENDS’ recent documentary or purchase our book, both called Shaped by Immigrants: A History of Yorkville.
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Scroll down to read the text of the article or click HERE to find the full article in Our Town.
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The Nathanial Prime Mansion during the Asylum years in 1907.
Photo: New York Historical Society

The Ghostly Remnant

“It’s a fascinating piece of history. It’s curious and stunning that it survived. And it should not be covered up.” Father Boniface Ramsey, pastor of St. Joseph’s Church. Photo: Sarah Greig Photography/FRIENDS of the Upper East Side.
Or how a 19th-century UES church popped up in all its majesty when a private school razed an old parking garage – and why its resurrection could prove fleeting
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A monumental and long-forgotten Yorkville treasure has resurfaced from out of the past on a quiet crosstown block on East 90th Street – but it is quickly expected to disappear from sight.
Upper East Siders wishing to glory in its grandeur and other-worldliness must not tarry: At an unspecified date, later this year or in 2020, it is set to vanish – perhaps for generations, perhaps indefinitely.
If and when that happens, the last vestige of an historic superblock that once offered meals and housing and schooling and Catholic discipline to impoverished orphans of German origin will be gone forever.
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This is a story about relics, religion and real estate. It’s about parking garages, preservation and a passion for lost causes.
Ultimately, it’s about the consequences of a property deal in 2011 between Hertz Rent-a-Car and the elite Spence School: At first, it fully restored a piece of the past to the Manhattan streetscape. But now, it is threatening to sever it for good.
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The object in question is an architectural remnant, a surviving fragment from an imposing neo-Classical, brick-and-stone church. Only a single element of the original superstructure still stands – its facade. But what a facade.
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It boasts exquisite ornamentation, detailed pediments, a circular rose window, decorative keystones that crown arched window openings and large Romanesque arches that once provided entry for prayer services.
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Hauntingly beautiful, those architectural remains are all that’s left of St. Joseph’s Orphan Asylum, which was founded in 1857, ministered to thousands of abandoned children and owned and occupied the entire city block bounded by 89th and 90th Streets and First and York Avenues.
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It was on that sprawling campus that the orphanage in 1898 built a hall, or gathering place, for its young charges, an elaborate facility located at 402 East 90th St. that was apparently converted in 1907 to serve both orphans and local parishioners as St. Joseph’s main chapel.
As a sacred site, its reign would be brief. By 1918 – with the end of World War I in sight, and UES land values soaring in anticipation of waves of returning doughboys – the orphanage began to sell off its multiple institutional buildings to developers.
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Before long, one of Yorkville’s earliest munificent organizations had moved to Peekskill in Westchester County. But even though its chapel went out of business, it never left the block.
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“It would have been deconsecrated,” said Father Boniface Ramsey, the pastor of St. Joseph’s Church on East 87th Street, which was built in 1894 for a German-speaking parish founded in 1873 and still holds Civil War-era baptismal records from its affiliated orphanage.
The purchaser would have been chosen with great care, the priest said. “The Archdiocese wouldn’t sell it to someone who would turn it into a bordello,” he added.
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Indeed, the buyer, and then a second buyer 65 years after that, turned out to be deeply respectful of the structure’s ecclesiastical legacy.
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THE AUTO AND THE CONDO ENTER THE CHAPEL

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The first Model-T had rolled off Henry Ford’s assembly line in 1908, and a decade later, as the auto played an increasingly outsized role on city streets, plans were drawn up to remodel the church as a parking garage for 250 cars, a 1918 New York Times story reported.
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Opting to retain its facades, the new owner essentially inserted a two-story garage within the church’s nave and clerestory. Meanwhile, over the next 10-plus years, three other two-floor parking garages popped up on 90th Street between First and York.
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Flash forward to 1983: A new owner buys the chapel-cum-garage, adds several stories, converts it into a 12-story condominium. Once again, the entry facade survives and is embedded into the newly constructed building.
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“A curious decision was made to retain the east facade and incorporate it into the larger residential building, creating a flattened, almost trompe l’oeil effect when viewed from the street,” said Rachel Levy, the executive director of the Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts, which is researching and documenting the site.
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Several church arches along 90th Street that once contained leaded windows became structural elements of the “boxy, simple 1980s facade of the building, creating a postmodern combination of old and new,” she said.
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For years, the view of the church’s primary facade, which rises about 65 to 70 feet in height, was truncated. Directly to its east, at 412 East 90th St., a neighboring garage, eventually purchased by Hertz, stood roughly 35- or 40-feet high, effectively masking the structure’s bottom half.
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Enter the prestigious Spence School. An all-girls, K-12, college-prep school with 751 students and tuition pegged at $52,050, its own history in the neighborhood runs deep: Founded in 1892, it moved to 91st Street in 1929.
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In Sept. 2011, Spence trustees paid $26 million to purchase the garage adjoining the church from Hertz Corp., property records show. Then last year, it demolished the structure – and lo and behold, for the first time in nearly a century, the full majesty of the church came into view.
Not for long. Spence late last year began excavation and foundation work for a 54,000-square-foot athletic complex on the site that will include a regulation-sized basketball court, nine squash courts, study centers, performing arts space and a greenhouse.
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The problem is that the six-story building will rise 85 feet and totally obscure the remnant wall of the old St. Joseph’s chapel.
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“The new Spence building at 412 East 90th St. will abut the brick-and-stone wall, but all primary structure is set back from the protruding elements of the remnant wall,” Spence said in a statement.
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“When the new building is finished, the masonry wall will not be visible,” the school confirmed.
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Father Ramsey thinks it should be saved, maintained and remain on view. “It’s a fascinating piece of history,” he said. “It’s curious and stunning that it survived. And it should not be covered up.”
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Community leaders are hoping for a creative solution:
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“I’m not one to force my interest in preservation on others,” said East Side City Council Member Ben Kallos, who represents the block and once lived in the condo building.
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“But I think it would be really cool if Spence chooses to put up a glass curtain wall so that students and others who use the facility can actually see this architectural feature on the side of the building,” he added.
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It’s a beautiful artifact of the past that can and should be saved, said Joan Geismar, an urban archeologist who once dug up a 92-foot, 18th-century merchant ship in lower Manhattan.
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“An institution of learning should have the sensitivity to preserve something that’s irreplaceable,” she added.
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Indeed, the object that will be “effectively erased” is “perhaps the last extant piece of this particular strain of Yorkville’s history,” Levy said.
“The neighborhood is changing left and right, and if the façade remnant could be retained in some way, it could be a great opportunity to illuminate some of our collective history,” she added.
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That history, encapsulated in the facade, speaks to all the children who survived the orphanage, said Kathy Jolowicz, who runs the Yorkville-Kleindeutschland Historical Society.
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“Their mothers tearfully gave them up as babies, and they became the ancestors of so many of the German-Americans who lived in the neighborhood,” she said.
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Rendering of the Spence School’s new athletic facility on East 90th Street. Rendering courtesy of the Spence School.

Extra! Extra! FRIENDS’ Fall 2018 Newsletter

Read all about it!

Click the image below to read all the latest news from FRIENDS
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INSIDE THIS ISSUE:
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FRIENDS on the
Front Lines Contesting Overdevelopment… pg. 2
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Shaped by Immigrants in Print and On Film!… pg. 3
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FRIENDS’ Thirty-Fifth Annual Meeting & Awards… pg. 5
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First Avenue Estate Update –
Is the Battle Finally Over?… pg. 7

There’s Still Time to Order Your Holiday Copy!

A book that celebrates the soul of our community.

“FRIENDS is delving into the boundless historical, cultural, architectural, mercantile and ecclesiastical treasures of Yorkville – at a time that heritage seems most in jeopardy.”

– Douglas Feiden, Our Town
 
Shaped by Immigrants is a richly illustrated and engaging history of one of New York City’s most fascinating immigrant communities. Since the book’s release last month, we’ve been thrilled by its reception, including  this glowing review by Douglas Feiden in Our Town.
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FRIENDS wants you to know that there is still time to place an order and have it delivered for the holidays.
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Proceeds from book sales directly support FRIENDS’ mission to preserve the architectural legacy, livability, and sense of place of the Upper East Side and be the leading voice for common sense development.
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Regular Price: $30
Current FRIENDS Member Price: $20
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