The Doughnut Wars: East Side Tummlers Spar Over Inner Space

On May 2, an architect for Ivana Trump will ask the Landmarks Preservation Commission to allow Ms. Trump to raise her backyard by four feet. The increased height, says the architect, Peter Dewitt, is necessary for Ms. Trump to install a lap pool in the basement of her townhouse at 10 East 64th Street, an improvement that will run her about $500,000.

Like many of her super-rich neighbors, Ms. Trump can’t just dig up her backyard to install a pool on a whim. To do anything to her property, which is located in the Upper East Side Historic District, she needs the permission of the Commission. She ignored them once before when she purchased the five-story townhouse in 1992 for $2.468 million and attached an awning to the facade which stretched to the curb; the Commission made her take it down several days later.

In this case, Ms. Trump needs a special variance to alter the 30 feet of land at the back of her plot, an area that is supposed to be protected from development by current zoning laws but has instead become a battleground among 10021 landowners.

The “Not In Our Backyards” battle pits Upper East Side preservationists and townhouse residents against ritzy doctors, nonprofit organizations and private schools, which are increasingly nibbling away at what community groups call “the doughnut,” a hollow, rectangular interior space in a residential block. As originally built, the blocks in the Upper East Side Historic District were backed up by rear yards and gardens that community activists and city planners say are supposed to be left that way–for historical, aesthetic and quality of life reasons. The culprits are nonresidential tenants who have moved into 100-year-old mansions, and the community’s only ammunition is the zoning changes proposed by City Planning Commission Chairman Joe Rose last year.

For once, Ms. Trump’s plan is the least offensive. At an April 17 meeting with the neighborhood–the first stop for approval– Ms. Trump’s architect’s presentation was pushed through since it does not involve any above-ground additions, while the one that preceded hers struck a nerve.

Dr. Martin Gubernick, an OB-GYN whose private practice is located on the first floor of the townhouse at 131 East 65th Street, was asking to expand his office into the building’s backyard. Under current zoning, doctors’ offices are classified as “community facilities,” which are allowed to be larger than residential buildings. The fact that the doctor’s variance will be granted is the problem.

“I’m distressed to see another piece of yard gobbled up,” said Joie Anderson, a member of Community Board 8 which serves the Upper East Side, of Dr. Gubernick’s plans. “The air and the light sucked up too.”

“It is a very serious situation,” said Genie Rice, president of CIVITAS, a zoning and planning review organization that conducts studies and makes recommendations to the Landmarks Commission. “These rear yards are being bricked over, trees are being chopped down.”

Since 1961, doctors’ offices, schools, universities, houses of worship and hospitals have been given certain allowances that residential buildings have not, allowing them to build higher and deeper onto a plot because they are beneficial to the community. Specifically, community facilities are allowed to build to the edge of their plot line an addition of one story, which can be up to 23 feet high.

Preservationists are also concerned about the fate of a stately mansion at 56 East 93rd Street, formerly the Smithers Alcohol Treatment and Training Center. The Spence School bought the building last spring but has not made its plans for renovation known yet. The fear is that it will try to expand into Smithers’ backyard.

“The community feels that the backyard is just as important [to preserve] as the facade,” said a veteran real estate executive. “It concerns everyone.”

Another potential concern is a new prostate cancer facility that Sloan Kettering plans to build at 68th Street and First Avenue, which will be allowed under current zoning to build all the way to the back of the plot line. Preliminary plans show a six-story building filling the entire lot.

While private individuals are not at liberty to build extensions to their townhouses, they are allowed to move into a building that was once designated as a community facility. If they do, they are allowed to keep the extension to the property.

According to Lisa Kersavage, executive director of Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts, another organization that makes recommendations to the Landmarks Preservation Commission, East 65th Street (where Dr. Gubernick’s offices are located) is a block with many community facilities, including private clubs and the China Institute. Because of the special zoning allowance, “The whole doughnut there is almost filled in,” she said.

“Once you build into the rear yard you are destroying the last vestiges of civilization,” said Lo van der Valk, president of Carnegie Hill Neighbors, Inc. “It is the last sense of community we have.” Mr. van der Valk added that in the past few years he has seen two or three instances of people tearing down structures in their backyard. “People want shared open space,” he said. “People are taking down the wall dividing their backyards so that their children can run back and forth between the space.”

Community leaders who want to see the community facility zoning laws change have targeted the Planning Commission’s new zoning plan, known as the Unified Bulk Program, the first full-scale revision of the city’s zoning laws since 1961, as the most likely way to get things changed. Preliminarily released for review last summer, the Unified Bulk Program will simplify zoning regulation with clearer height limits and setback rules.

In a letter to Mr. Rose, CIVITAS’ Ms. Rice called for “a halt to rear yard incursions in residential neighborhoods.” She asks that community facilities on narrow streets in residential districts conform to existing bulk and height limits for residential buildings.

Jennifer Chait, a spokesperson for the Planning Commission, said the community facility loophole was on the chairman’s agenda to be resolved. “It is a problem being studied for inclusion in reforming the zoning,” she told The Observer .

In the meantime, Board 8′s Landmarks Committee estimates it receives about 75 to 100 such applications per year, most of which they are required to approve.

UPPER EAST SIDE

PETER THOMAS ROTH GIVES AN OLD HOUSE A FACIAL When not concocting potions, putting them in fancy little bottles, giving them names like Power C Soufflé, charging $85 for 1.5 ounces, then watching them sell out at Sephora stores around the city, Peter Thomas Roth is channeling Bob Vila. And the East End Avenue-bred skin-care guru (the President apparently uses his Oil Free SPF 30 sunblock) stands out like any other tool-deficient city boy at Home Depot, the do-it-yourself warehouse he has begun to frequent since acquiring a five-story townhouse for $5.7 million in January.

“I’ve never lived in a house!” said Mr. Roth. This one is an 8,042-square-foot neo-federal limestone and brick number with stone Doric columns at 52 East 73rd Street, between Park and Madison avenues, which he describes as “Tara in Gone With the Wind .” The house went on the market in June of 1998 for $7.9 million. The real estate taxes are $33,000 per year.

Mr. Roth, his wife and their two children moved in the same day they got title to the property in January. Not long after, he was out back power-hosing the exterior which was a little grimy since no one had lived there in about a year. Mr. Roth bought the house from Hirair Hovnanian, a New Jersey industrialist and the chairman of the Armenian Assembly Board of Trustees and his wife Anna. (The Hovnanians bought the townhouse in April 1985 for $2.35 million.)

Mr. Roth, 42, was a bit skittish about leaving the full-time doorman and concierge at the co-op building where his last four apartments were located, the Sovereign on East 58th Street. He and his wife, Noreen Roth, who had their second child in October, consulted security experts and decided to install bullet- and riot-proof glass that will be arriving in May.

There have also been locksmiths and roofers–and there soon may be a landscaper. Mr. Roth picked up some new plants at Home Depot, but isn’t sure if he should take on planting a new tree out front since the one out back doesn’t seem to be doing that well. “We’re hoping that it’s alive,” said Mr. Roth. At least the plumbing, heating and air-conditioning are all brand-new.

Decorating has been a little easier. One of the Roths’ first purchases was the ballroom chandelier from the St. Moritz Hotel, which they got at a liquidation sale. “We saw it and said, ‘That’s fabulous,’” said Mr. Roth, who had the chandelier cleaned and reinforced in his dining room after changing the 70 individual 100 watt bulbs to 7 watt bulbs. The paneled dining room and a living room are on the second floor; both have marble fireplaces. Also on the second floor, are a kitchen and a 10-foot by 10-foot terrace. The third floor has a library, an exercise room with a bathroom, a large master bedroom with a bathroom and dressing room and another 10-foot by 10-foot terrace. For now, the Roths have transformed the fourth-floor guest room into their kids’ bedrooms–using the wet bar as a fridge for milk bottles and the sink as a stuffed-animal nook. The fifth floor features three bedrooms, three bathrooms and a maid’s room.

Mr. Roth thanks his neighbor at the Sovereign for not budging when he tried to take over the apartment next door–which would have meant the Roths would never have moved anywhere. Happily ensconsed in his own house, Mr. Roth probably only wishes his old super would make house calls. “You have to deal with the weirdest things when you own a house,” he said.

UPPER EAST SIDE

113 East 61st Street

Three bedroom, four-bathroom, seven-story townhouse.

Asking: $10 million. Selling: $10 million.

Time on the market: 10 weeks.

HOTEL KING’S WIDOW GETS $10 MILLION WEDDING GIFT Edward Lewis sold the Pierre, the St. Regis and the Plaza in his career as a hotel broker. When he died, in his early 80s, in February of 1998, he left this townhouse and a villa in Round Hill, Jamaica, to his widow, Constance, now in her mid-30s. In January, Constance hosted a nine-day party at the Jamaica estate–where neighbors include Ralph Lauren and America Online, Inc., president Bob Pittman–during which she married Greenwich, Conn, investment adviser Gregory Holmes. The bride scattered 16,000 flowers into the pool and wrapped the house’s wrought-iron gate in white tulle for the event, which was attended by Cindy Adams. About the same time, she put the 6,200-square-foot townhouse on the market and bought a $5.35 million, three-bedroom, 7,000-square-foot condo at the Alfred, 161 West 61st Street. A couple from the Midwest, represented by Connie Zeckendorf of Brown Harris Stevens, bought the 19-foot by 50-foot building for the asking price and the deal closed in mid-April. “She adored it,” said Laurance Kaiser IV, president of Key-Ventures Real Estate, about his client’s attachment to the townhouse, to which she recently added a $150,000 bathroom on the main floor. “She took pride in her home,” he said, adding that she made every effort to return it to mint condition before selling it. The basement has a marble-floored exercise room, a laundry room and a wine cellar; on the first floor there’s a marble entrance foyer, a wood-burning fireplace, and a 50-foot landscaped garden. The living room and dining room are on the second floor and a library, sitting room and kitchenette are on the third floor. The master bedroom on the fourth floor has a marble and onyx bathroom, and two guest bedrooms share a bathroom on the fifth floor. The sixth floor is the place to party–with a marble wet bar and a glassed in solarium.

MIDTOWN

641 Fifth Avenue (Olympic Tower).

Four-bed, 5-bath, 7,200-square-foot condo.

Asking: $5.9 million. Selling: $5.325 million.

Charges: $5,792. Taxes: $5,755.

Time on the market: One year.

WHERE $6 MILLION HAS BECOME $5.3 MILLION “It was an unpleasant closing!” said a source about the foreign buyers of the duplex right next door to the 18,000-square-foot apartment sold by Adnan Khashoggi for $12 million in March. Two days before the closing, the buyers came to take a final look at the apartment and found that it had not been cleaned. “They were shrieking!” said the source. The seller should have been as well since the apartment, which spans the entire width of the 51st and 52nd floors, sold for $6 million in 1994–almost $700,000 more than this deal. The buyers were represented by Laurance Kaiser IV, president of Key-Ventures Real Estate.

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