Stuck Between a Rock and a Hardship Case…

July 10, 2012

The building at 214 West 72nd Street was constructed in the late-nineteenth century along with its two neighbors to the east, sharing party walls and foundations.  These three buildings were similar in height, width, and bulk to the rest of the contemporary structures on the street.  However in the past several years, the two structures to the east of 214 have been purchased, demolished, and replaced by a twenty story building.

As a result of inadequate demolition and construction techniques next door, the party walls and connecting beams had been removed, causing major structural damage to number 214; the walls are no longer plumb and the interior stairwells are completely warped.  Moreover, the major excavation that was necessary to construct a twenty story building unearthed the foundation of 214, causing the structure to no longer be level and creating substantial cracks in the walls and ceiling, resulting in major leaks.

The owners of 214 argue that it would be more financially sound to demolish the building and construct a new, larger, as-of-right structure than to attempt to restore the ruined historic brownstone.  They are proposing a nine story modern building, which would not be out of place with the increasingly modern, high-rise streetscape along the intersection of Broadway, Amsterdam Avenue, and West 72nd Street.

However, 214 West 72nd Street falls into the proposed Upper West Side Historic District Expansion area.  This means that the structure can neither be significantly altered nor demolished.  The landowners argue that the property doesn’t maintain its historic integrity as a result of substantial alterations in the 1990s, which included the installation of a more modern commercial storefront on the first and second levels of the front façade.  Therefore, the owners suggest, it can be easily removed from the historic district extension.

At the Community Board 7 Preservation Committee’s public meeting in October, the committee stated that they understood these concerns, but hoped a less dramatic resolution could be executed than demolishing the historic building or forcing the landowners to carry the burden of the expensive restoration.  The committee seemed conflicted on whether or not to exclude the property from the proposed historic district expansion; they did not want to have to make the landowner go through a hardship hearing if the property was designated, but they also did not want to set a precedent of removing already established historic properties prior to landmarking.

What do you think should be done with the building at 214 West 72nd Street?  Does the owners’ hardship argument give them a right to demolish the historic structure and replace it with a tall, modern building?  If they are allowed to demolish or substantially alter the building, what precedent does that set for property owners attempting to dodge historic district designation in the future?

Written by,
Dianne Pierce O’Brien

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