Landmarks Commission Moves to Designate Lexington Avenue; Landlord Lobby Uneasy, Activists Ready the Champagne

Developers and property owners may now have one more reason to curse the year 2009: the Landmarks Preservation Commission is on the verge of calendaring an expansion of the Upper East Side Historic District for several blocks across Lexington Avenue, the most critical step toward landmarking the new area.

The LPC will decide on Monday, June 23. Kate Daly, the executive director of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, told a public meeting on June 3 that the expansion would almost certainly be calendared this summer, according to several supporters who attended. LPC spokeswoman Elizabeth de Bourbon also told The Observer on Monday that it was extremely likely that the LPC would approve the calendaring.

What does this mean for Lexington Avenue? If the LPC approves the area as a historic district, landlords and developers would have to go through the LPC to renovate or remodel any buildings in the district, since all the buildings would all be landmarked.

The current Upper East Side Historic District extends from 59th to 79th streets, stretching from Fifth Avenue just up to Lexington Avenue. Many buildings in the area were built during Reconstruction after the Civil War and during the post-World War I boom. The expansion would include Lexington, from 72nd Street to 75th streets and again from 63rd Street to 65th street.

Many lobbyists argued that it is essential for Lexington Avenue’s distinct architecture and historic character to be preserved. Anne Millard, president of Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts, which has been lobbying for the expansion for the past seven years, said that Lexington Avenue is “the last avenue that is pure” in its celebration of small-scale stores and buildings.

If the buildings are not landmarked, Friends executive director Seri Worden warned, it is likely that most neighborhood businesses—like delis, butcher shops and repair stores—would be driven out of business, and historic brownstones would get demolished to make way for large condominiums.

“You could have a very soulless borough there,” Ms. Worden said.

The Friends group cites Kean House, an old residential building for women on 65th Street and Lexington that was demolished last fall. “Right now it’s just an empty lot,” said Friends education director Sarah O’Keefe. “Pretty depressing.”

A brownstone immediately south of Kean House was also demolished, according to Ms. Worden. The area falls under the current expansion, meaning that plans for a large residential building in that combined space—which could legally rise as high as 15 to 17 stories—may fall flat.

Real estate developers oppose the expansion. Mike Slattery, a senior vice president of the Real Estate Board of New York, said that many expansions of existing districts have served as a tactic for curtailing further development, and in this case, that is the preservationists’ “ motivation.” He added that preservationists have been pushing for buildings of “lesser quality” to be included in the district, and it’s important both for the “credibility” of landmarks and the city’s vitality to examine the quality of those buildings closely.

Daniel Garodnick, a City Council member who has been lobbying for the expansion since he took office in 2005, said that “there is a continuity, there is a distinct connection between the buildings and the rest of the historic district.”

Although developers argue that landmarking buildings stifles economic activity, Friends board member Franny Eberhart said that the Upper East Side is one of the most desirable and successful neighborhoods in the world, thanks in large part to its designation as a historic district.

Landmarks Commission Moves to Designate Lexington Avenue; Landlord Lobby Uneasy, Activists Ready the Champagne