The Last Days of 6 Townhouses That Have Stood for 125 Years

Good morning. It’s Thursday. Today we’ll find out about residents who have not given up their opposition to an apartment building planned for their Upper Manhattan neighborhood. We’ll also take a closer look at something that’s everywhere in New York City: scaffolding.

Richard W.B. Feigen acknowledged that it was almost too late. “This might not be the 11th hour,” he said. “It’s like 11:59.”

Feigen is a longtime opponent of change on his block, on West 158th Street in Upper Manhattan — change that has taken the form of a 140-unit apartment building. The developer planning it intends to demolish six townhouses, starting with the one next to Feigen’s — part of a row that has stood together since around the time that Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders set their sights on San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War.

Now the city’s past and its present are colliding on the block. The developer, Artifact Real Estate Development, said in a statement that the project was important for “a city that’s hungry for affordable living space and community space.” Its plans call for 140 apartments, 42 of them classified as affordable.

It’s not a historic block, according to the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission — a fact that upsets Feigen and other opponents of the apartment project.

The houses on West 158th Street were left out of a historic district that was designated in 2009. A spokeswoman for the commission said in 2017 that the decision not to include them was deliberate, because they are of “a different typology” than the five- to 13-story brick apartment buildings that dominate the area. The landmarks commission has rejected subsequent appeals to reconsider.

The Department of Buildings said on Wednesday that demolition permits had been issued for only three of the townhouses; permits for the other three have been applied for. The front windows have already been removed from one of the houses, and the back windows have been taken out of another.

Residents in the neighborhood had worried for years that the block was vulnerable. In 2017, two houses, Nos. 636 and 640, were listed as being in contract for $2.35 million each. Residents said that No. 638 later went for nearly three times that amount. It was more valuable, they said, because it came with a lot behind the other houses that would give a new building a much larger footprint.

“We get it: No one likes major construction in their backyard,” Javier Martinez, the chief executive officer of Artifact, said in a statement. “But that’s not sufficient reason to hold up or cancel the construction of an important mixed-use building that’s bringing a lot of much-needed housing into the community.”

Martinez also said some of the houses “were doing harm to the community.” At least two were vacant “and in horrible condition,” he said. “Both had ongoing issues with squatters, trespassers doing drugs inside and terrible rat infestation.”

Feigen said that the house next to his had been vacant a couple of years ago and that a drug dealer had used it. “This was his distribution hub,” Feigen said, adding that at one point, he had to hire a security guard to see that his house remained safe.

Vivian Ducat, another opponent of the new building and a member of the land use committee of Community Board 12, said the board had passed several resolutions over the years calling for the townhouses to be added to the nearby Audubon Park Historic District.

Feigen once dreamed of a community garden behind the townhouses. He said there was a red oak tree behind one of them that the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx “would be proud to have.”

Some of the opponents are scheduled to meet today with Mark Levine, the Manhattan borough president, and a City Council member, Shaun Abreu, even though the possibility of saving the townhouses seems slim. Levine said on Wednesday that he would “miss these lovely buildings.”

“Even in the midst of a housing shortage,” he said, “there are some buildings worth preserving. Perhaps there is a way to retain the essential components of these historic structures while adding housing on the site?”


Weather

Enjoy a sunny day in the mid-50s. The evening will be clear, with temperatures dropping to the high 30s.

ALTERNATE-SIDE PARKING

In effect until Monday (Passover).


They are meant to be temporary, erected to shield pedestrians from falling debris while buildings are being constructed, inspected or repaired. But nearly 1,000 of the sheds have been in place for more than three years, city records show. One shed on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx and another in the Wingate section of Brooklyn have stood since 2011.

At many sites, no work is being done. The property owners — who put the sheds up to comply with local laws that some consider draconian — found that keeping them in place was less expensive than doing facade repairs.

Neal Shoemaker’s storefront tour business in Harlem is sandwiched between two sheds, one of which has existed, on and off, for more than two decades. “There are not many people around who remember when it wasn’t there,” he said.

Over the years, city officials have railed against the proliferation of sheds, saying they obscure businesses and foster illegal activity. But their desire for change has been constrained by regulations spurred by the death of a Barnard College freshman in 1979. Laws enacted in the wake of that tragedy mandated periodic inspection of the facades of buildings taller than six stories.

Conducting those inspections requires that scaffolding be put up, which gave rise to an industry made up of private inspectors and companies that provide and maintain the structures that loom overhead. In 2022, Bloomberg estimated that construction scaffolding was a $1 billion business in New York City.


METROPOLITAN diary

Dear Diary:

There’s a crack on the sidewalk
On Broadway between 55th and 56th
That I pass on the way to the train
That looks exactly like Frogtown,
The little enclave of land between the 5 and the L.A. River,
Double-humped like a camel,
Where I like to walk with Dad.

It’s no more than a few feet long
But I can see it on Broadway and pretend it’s the River Walk
And the sidewalk is my hometown
And 55th is the Pacific
And 56th is the San Gabriels
And I’m there walking with Dad
And the world doesn’t seem too big.

— Micah Meyers

Illustrated by Agnes Lee. Send submissions here and read more Metropolitan Diary here.


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