By Joy Bergmann
The question has nagged me for years. What is up with those decrepit – seemingly abandoned – row houses at 231-233 West 74th Street, just behind Fairway?
A few weeks ago, I decided to find out.
My first Google yielded a chuckle. WSR contributor Maria Gorshin tried solving the same mystery back in December 2011, calling them “clumsy eyesores”, “toad-ugly” and “sad.”
In 2006, Christopher Gray, the late New York Times architectural detective, investigated the twin buildings. “They now look almost empty, with torn shades in the windows,” he wrote. “In the white-water rapids of Upper West Side real estate, this forlorn pair is a cool, shady little eddy, a shipwreck of time.”
Now plywood covers many of the windows. Rubbish collects in exterior stairwells. Department of Buildings records show three open “failure to maintain; building in state of disrepair” violations from the past two years. The vibe has progressed from forlorn to despairing.
Who is responsible for these properties?
Gray identified The Beekman Estate, a corporation, as the owner, but the firm denied ownership when Gorshin made her attempt.
Today, The Beekman Estate’s website lists two other corporations as the property owners: 231 West 74th Street Corp. and 233 West 74th Street Corp., with Mt. Pleasant Management Corp. as the managing agent.
Property records — including the most recent deeds from 1995 — show multiple “street address” corporations being involved. All of the entities share the same Lexington Avenue address and CEO, according to New York Secretary of State records.
The Vice President of 231 and 233 W. 74th Street Corps agreed to answer WSR’s questions about the properties, but asked not to be named. The VP said he did not own the corporations and was only a “representative of the owner.”
The following email Q&A with the VP has been edited for clarity and supplemented with contextual information.
Q: What were the plans for 231-233 West 74th Street back in 1995, when the owners bought it?
A: The owners are not developers, but have a history of renovating, repositioning and renting older properties and holding them for the long term. Those were – and are – the plans for 231-233 West 74th Street.
In its 2013 report, LPC noted the Queen Anne-style structures — built in 1886 by the Ansonia’s developer W.E.D. Stokes and designed by architect William J. Merritt — appeared to be vacant and were covered with netting.
Given that LPC must approve all work plans to the property (with few exceptions), what are your immediate next steps to improve the structures?
A: Short term, we have submitted filings for a “reconstruction of a façade.” When the building is fully vacant, our plan is to renovate and rent the brownstones. We are looking forward to doing the work; it’s always great to bring back a building.
[An LPC spokesperson confirmed the facade work application has been in process since September 2021; the VP said his team is procuring an engineering report LPC requested before LPC may proceed with their final review and decision.]
Q: The 2006 NYT story mentioned the owners were waiting for “the last of the tenants to leave.” Multiple sources tell me someone is still living in a basement unit, 15+ years later. I tried to reach him myself. HPD records show the property has a history of having regulated units. What’s going on?
A: The tenant of record moved to Cascais, Portugal, some time ago. We believe he has since passed away. There is a legal case pending with the occupants which is contested but on hold due to a negotiation. The idea is to minimize the litigation and possibly relocate the tenant to another apartment under a legal lease. The possible relocation apartment is completed and awaiting the building’s Certificate of Occupancy, which we hope to obtain shortly.
Q: Was a buyout offer made?
A: As far as a “buyout,” the owners are long-term rental owners – not developers/builders, so there is no “pot of gold” to offer. The end result will hopefully be a nice restoration to rental apartments. There is no planned sale to developers or a condo offering, which are the usual driver of buyout offers.
Q: How has that remaining tenancy altered your plans for the property?
A: The plan was to renovate the building 10 years ago. Certificates of No Harassment were obtained and renovation plans were filed in May 2012, but the plans were held up due to the remaining occupant. We actually obtained permits for 233 West 74th Street, but we were unable to obtain a renovation permit for 231 West 74th Street because of the single, occupied apartment.
The buildings and facades of 231 and 233 were built at the same time and are essentially part of the same structure; they share a party wall (the structural wall between the two buildings) and a very heavy stoop. As a result, we were advised it would not be possible to work on 233 until we could work on 231 and 233 simultaneously (the contractor and architect both felt they could safely work on the pair at the same time, but it was not logical or safe to work on only one). Essentially fixing one side would endanger the other.
Q: Another Beekman Estate-involved property at 228-230 West 75th Street [also Merritt-designed-Stokes-developed-and-landmarked row houses] has undergone a recent renovation. Is it a good model of what you hope for on 74th Street?
A: The properties have different owners; they are very different buildings. But yes, that is the general idea.
Q: Best-case scenario, what does the future of the 74th St. property look like, and in what timeframe?
A: Ideally, the buildings would be fully renovated/rebuilt and rented as apartments, perhaps with 3 to 4 apartments in each building. My hope is that something can be done in 2 to 3 years, but that might be optimistic.
Q: That’s not going to please the neighbors. “Heinous”, “derelict,” “rat heaven” and “crumbling” are among the adjectives they use when describing 231-233 W. 74th. How do you respond to their concerns?
A: We have been looking forward to renovating the property. I am sure the neighbors are not happy, but we try very hard to keep the buildings as best we can given the delayed renovation plans.
Our super clears the sidewalk and stoop daily, we have regular exterminator visits and we have lights and a security camera. We occasionally have the same homeless issues that West Side Rag has reported on. Unfortunately, we also have a number of people who use the setback area as a bathroom.
We don’t see rodents in the buildings. With only one occupied apartment, we have minimal trash going out. That occupied apartment is at the basement level and they have not reported any rodents in the building.
Q: Is the property structurally sound?
A: Obviously, the intent of the work is to ensure that the buildings are structurally sound and engineers are part of the current review. We would have preferred to have been allowed to do this work years ago when it was first filed.
Not exactly reassuring. WSR turned to the Department of Buildings.
“During our most recent inspection of the two properties, we did not see any evidence that the buildings were structurally unstable or were posing an imminent danger to the neighbors,” a DOB spokesperson said via email.
The Landmarks Law also requires properties be maintained in a condition of good repair, and the LPC has an enforcement department to ensure they are, an LPC spokesperson wrote to WSR.
“But our focus is on protecting landmarks and not penalizing owners,” she said. With regards to the 231-233 W. 74th Street properties, “LPC has not taken any enforcement action as the owner is already taking steps to make repairs.”
Some readers may have heard of Fairway being involved in the properties at one time. Mortgage documents appear to show some leasehold interests back in the early 2000s.
But, according to a brief conversation with Dan Glickberg, the great-grandson of Fairway’s founder, the family and its business partners “have nothing to do with” the properties these days. Fairway was acquired by Wakefern Food Corp. in 2020. A spokesperson for Wakefern did not respond to WSR’s emails.
And so, after sleuthing through dozens of documents and consulting local experts, do I know for sure who owns these buildings? No.
But whoever they are, they now know the community is watching and will hold them accountable for improving the situation. Let’s hope it doesn’t take another 10 years.
Thank you to GB, BT and SK for their research assistance.