Veterans Throw Legal Wrench Into East Side Armory Plans

Before there can be any decisions on what to do with the Seventh Regiment Armory on Park Avenue-before any construction can begin, before the homeless women who stay there can be moved out, before the various Upper East Side factions can have their say-one basic question has to be addressed: Who owns it?

All along, the state has assumed that it’s the owner of the impressive, 124-year-old, block-sized structure at 643 Park Avenue, that it’s been responsible for the Armory’s upkeep and that, therefore, the state can do with it basically whatever it pleased, save for the advice (if not consent) of local, and vocal, Upper East Side leaders.

But a group of veterans says that the Armory building actually belongs to them, and that they have no intention of turning it into a Lincoln Center for the East Side, which is the proposal sitting before the Empire State Development Commission right now.

And Board 8 thought it had all the clout in deciding the Armory’s fate!

Veterans of the Seventh Regiment Armory, a group tracing its ancestry to the original “Silk Stocking” Seventh Regiment officers who built the Armory in 1877, have filed suit in U.S. District Court in Manhattan seeking to block the culture-center plan, claiming they are the rightful owners of the Armory and that the state’s development plans amount to an illegal seizure of property.

And the veterans have plans of their own for the building. No highfalutin concert and arts hall for them. Rather, they’re pushing for the creation of a solemn military museum commemorating New York City’s contribution to the nation’s war efforts, careful restoration of the Armory’s lavish reception rooms (designed by the likes of Louis Comfort Tiffany) and an upgrade of the building’s 53,000-square-foot drill hall, which remains one of the largest unobstructed interior spaces in the city, to attract an international roster of trade fairs and exhibitions.

Kenyon FitzGerald, president of the Seventh Regiment Fund, a nonprofit group representing the vets, said the veterans’ claim rests on the fact that, unlike any other state armory, the Seventh Regiment Armory’s founders paid for their armory out of their own pockets.

“What [the state] has done to the Armory is a crime,” the Wilton, Conn., resident told The Observer. “People should go to jail. It’s constructive demolition through neglect.” Mr. FitzGerald, who joined the Armory as a National Guardsman in 1960 and is spearheading the veterans’ lawsuit, said the state’s plans are tantamount to “looting New York City’s military heritage.”

The suit was filed in February against the Empire State Development Corporation, Governor Pataki, the Seventh Regiment Armory Conservancy, Ernst and Young (the company that prepared the state’s request for proposals) and the Division of Military and Naval Affairs, the state agency responsible for operation of the Armory since 1942. The state has until the end of April to respond.

State officials would not comment on the suit, but they may actually come to welcome it. The deteriorating landmark is something of a white elephant. It will take tens of millions of dollars to restore its crumbling structure. And what state or elected official wants to take the political flak for moving 100 homeless women from the Lenox Hill Neighborhood House, who since 1984 have been sleeping each night on cots in a fifth-floor gymnasium?

With collapsing ceilings and peeling walls endangering the Armory’s ornate rooms and multimillion-dollar collection of paintings, the building is in such an advanced state of decrepitude that last year the World Monument Fund named it one of the 100 most endangered monuments, alongside such sites as Machu Picchu in Peru and the city of Petra in Jordan.

It is in such bad shape-and in such a politically sensitive location-that the state got just one bid last March when it sent out a request for proposals. That bid came from a group that is calling itself the Seventh Regiment Armory Conservancy. But to turn the site into a cultural center, like the Conservancy wants, will involve extensive construction: drilling, blasting, traffic tie-ups-the kinds of issues that make neighbors and, subsequently, community-board members livid.

The Conservancy-which, as the sole bidder, has the edge in getting the contract-has put a $50 million preliminary price-tag on their plan, and it’s unlikely the state will put up all the money. Construction will last at least two years.

With their monkey-wrench suit, the veterans hope to block it. The suit acknowledges that the Armory sits on city land and is maintained with state funds, but it was built at the initiative of the members of the Seventh Regiment. The suit says the Regiment in 1873 petitioned the New York State Legislature to grant them city land. A year later, New York City leased the site to them for $1 a year (the same rental fee still applies), and was to put up $350,000 to build the Armory.

The city, however, was unable to come up with the money, the suit says, so the officers of the Seventh Regiment, many of them from wealthy families (not for nothing were they called the “Silk Stocking Regiment”), paid for the construction themselves. No state funds were used, and though the city was required to pay the Seventh Regiment $8,000 a year for building maintenance, in 1942 the state assumed the city’s obligations for the upkeep, according to the suit.

But, said Mr. FitzGerald, the state has allowed the Armory to deteriorate and has used little of the $1.3 million–plus in revenues generated by arts and antiques shows and other events for the building’s upkeep. (The state says about $1 million of that income went back into the site.) As for the city agencies, said Mr. FitzGerald, “they’ve ducked the issue. Giuliani won’t touch it … and the Landmarks [Preservation] Commission does nothing. They’re totally useless; they don’t want to go up against the state.”

Asked why the veterans didn’t simply put in their own bid for the site, Mr. FitzGerald said: “Why should we make a bid on our own home?”

The state has said it hopes to make a decision on the Conservancy’s plan by the end of the summer, and if approved, the project could break ground within the next two years. But the suit could hold things up.

“Ownership of the Armory is a key piece of the project,” says local resident Elaine Walsh, a CUNY urban affairs professor. “I don’t think they will move forward until they have a contract.”

And that may be easier said than done. Until the state can make a deal with the veterans, said Mr. FitzGerald, “I can promise them there will be no end to the litigation.”

-Petra Bartosiewicz

An Old Neighborhood Vanishes Before Their Eyes

Cooper Square has long been the gateway to the obstreperous East Village, where the Bowery (famous for its artists’ lofts through the 70’s), St. Marks Place (famous for its piercings and test-pattern hairdos) and Astor Place converge. The counterculture-or whatever is left of it-begins there, and even these days some of the city’s young, pierced set congregate in their home-away-from-home among the scaffolding surrounding Cooper Union’s main building, while a group of skateboarders launch their traffic forays from an upended cube sculpture across the intersection.

But with a Barnes & Noble bookstore and a Starbucks Coffee shop now holding up the west end of the square, can the future be far behind? This is the new New York City, and with downtown property values skyrocketing, it seems no surprise that Cooper Square is getting a makeover. The question is: Who wants it?

Board 2 used a minor variance application to raise just those major issues at their April 19 monthly meeting. The application was submitted by a property owner that wants to turn the ground floor of a building zoned for manufacturing into a retail site.

“If we give them a special permit for retail, there will be this whole retail ribbon that frankly I don’t want,” said one board member.

Other members said the board needs to show the other local institutions with which it is locked in endless battles-New York University comes to mind-that it is not asleep at the wheel and that it is carefully monitoring the area’s transformation, including Cooper Square.

The immediate issue was the zoning variance requested by Hartz Mountain Inc., owner of 32 Cooper Square. The building is nestled between the old Carl Fischer Building (home for decades to the music publishing company) and The Village Voice. (Hartz Mountain also owns the Voice building; Hartz’s chairman, Leonard Stern, until last year owned The Voice.)

Hartz wants to rent out the bottom floor of 32 Cooper Square as a retail space-for $14,000 a month. A Hartz representative told Board 2’s Zoning Committee that it plans to lease the ground floor for a restaurant or a store.

To the board members, it was an ominous sign of more upscale intrusions. The Carl Fischer building, for example, is being reconfigured into 26 luxury lofts, all of which will have broadband access provided by Samsung. Samsung has already raised eyebrows by renting a portion of the new development’s ground-floor retail space for an experimental new venture, Web2Zone, an Internet café that will provide broadband Internet access to its patrons-and to the luxury apartments above, board members said. It is scheduled to open in June.

As for the hotel itself-a collaboration by the world-renowned architect Rem Koolhaas and the firm of Herzog & de Meuron, and lauded by no less than the city Landmarks Commission for its creative design-it’s sure to change the tone of the entire area, shifting it from a gateway to Avenue A, four blocks to the east, to a fashionable entry point to the high-end shopping and residential Lafayette Street a block west and Soho to the south.

In the middle of all this is Cooper Union’s sweeping reconstruction of its campus, including major rehabilitation of its Astor Place building and the addition of a new office and classroom building. With the construction will come changes to the labyrinthine traffic and pedestrian-walkway patterns.

The impending changes apparently frightened the board, and Hartz Mountain was told to put its request on hold until the board can get a grasp on all the moving parts. The board voted not to support the variance application, but told Hartz Mountain it could refile later.

“We want to guard against a retail use-group fix [on the neighborhood], which would allow bars and restaurants,” explained board member Marty Tessler. “God knows we have enough of those over on the Lafayette side.”

-Tom McGeveran

They Never Did It For Woolworth

You can’t blame a City Council member for trying.

Or can you?

Chalk it up to chutzpah-or maybe it’s simply the climate of the city, where advertisements now blot every street corner from Chelsea to Coney Island-but historic Park Row came close to being transformed into J&R Row.

That’s J&R, as in the music store that’s sprawled over the block southeast of City Hall (across from Rudy Giuliani’s fenced-in park). J&R as in “NEW YORK’S LARGEST LANDMARK MEGASTORE,” as a sign on one of the store’s five Park Row buildings screams.

The store, which in 20 years has grown from a mom-and-pop enterprise to one of the city’s busiest electronics stores, asked City Council member Kathryn Freed to recognize their success by sponsoring the block’s name change. Needless to say, it did not please Board 1.

With much chuckling and eye-rolling, board members took about a minute at their April 17 meeting to vote their disapproval of the idea.

“I thought for sure it’s an April Fools joke,” said Gary Fagin, chairman of Board 1’s Seaport–Civic Center Committee, about receiving his meeting agenda on April 1 and spotting the J&R item. “People called me from other committees saying, ‘Oh, they’re doing an April Fool’s joke on us.’ Then I called the board office and they said, ‘No, it’s not April Fool’s at all, it’s for real.’ We were pretty astonished.”

Adding to the humor factor, said Mr. Fagin, was J&R’s history with the board. It has not been good, probably reaching its nadir several years ago when J&R tore down the “beautiful old Clark Building” at 1 Park Row over the board’s objections, he said. Further, J&R has not joined other downtown businesses in sponsoring various youth activities, he complained.

“They haven’t done a good job of being cooperative or working with the community,” Board 1 district manager Paul Goldstein told The Observer. “They seem monolithic and only into their own interests.”

J&R’s spokesman, Abe Brown, did not return phone calls from The Observer.

Mr. Fagin told the board that he counted 26 J&R signs on Park Row. “There’s no shortage of signage there,” he said. Besides, board members agreed, naming a street after a store would set a bad precedent for other, even more worthy commercial entities.

“Having a street named after you is a cachet that has to be earned,” Mr. Fagin told The Observer. “Next we’ll have Century 21 Street and Duane Reade Avenue and McDonald’s Boulevard.”

Ms. Freed said she was withdrawing the request.

“As far as I’m concerned,” she told The Observer, “this is a dead issue.

-Sarah Bronson

May 1: Board 7, Lincoln Square Neighborhood Center, 250 West 65th Street, between West End and Amsterdam avenues, 7 p.m., 362-4008.

May 2: Board 4, Fulton Center Auditorium, 119 Ninth Avenue, between 17th and 18th streets, 6 p.m., 736-4536; Board 10, Harlem State Office Building, 163 West 125th Street, second floor, 6 p.m., 749-3105.