Friday, January 23, 2009

A Penthouse Tale

I came across a story this morning on the New York Daily News website about a "most extraordinary one-bedroom penthouse" on East 72nd Street, with rapturous details of its anachronistically high price, but more than that, it's throwback-to-Nixon-era decor. The thing is, it is a penthouse: it sits proudly and most attractively atop a building. It's a one-story structure. It fits the definition of penthouse as I know it and as I think most intelligent, honest people know it:

1. an apartment or dwelling on the roof of a building, usually set back from the outer walls.
2. any specially designed apartment on an upper floor, esp. the top floor, of a building.
3. a structure on a roof for housing elevator machinery, a water tank, etc.

I don't see anything else suggesting that a penthouse, by definition, represents multiple-story dwellings added to the roof of a building -- those would simply be additional floors. Indeed, the second definition above distinguishes between additional stories and "the top floor" of a building.

Yet on the Upper East Side, where the 93rd Street Beautification Association is engaged in a two-front battle -- to persuade civic authorities that the Carnegie Hall Historic District should be extended one block to include a gorgeous collection of historic brownstones; and to persuade many of the same civic authorities that this block should be called Marx Brothers Place to honor the building where Minnie Marx raised her legendary comic-hero sons -- a third front has been opened. As I covered in this post and in this post and in this post, a fellow named Mark Martinez has been hauling out every trick in the book, it seems, to receive permission to build a penthouse on top of a penthouse on top of the building he owns on historic East 93rd Street.

If I may, let me digress for a moment. In my view, the entirety of the Bloomberg administration has been about development, landlords and any law, rule or consideration that benefits them. It is undeniable and unquestionable that the Mayor believes the business of New York is business (Calvin Coolidge let me borrow his phrase!), and that such crunchy-granola considerations as historic preservation should be relegated whenever possible to the little plot of land out in the back where the hemp-smoking liberals are sequestered. (Consider, for example, the New York Times' great expose of Robert B. Tierney, Bloomberg's handpicked, apparently henpecked chair of the benignly neglected Landmarks Preservation Commission.)

So it is in this context that my friend and comrade Susan Hefti of the 93rd Street Beautification Association keeps in touch and demonstrates through her efforts that she will not shrink from a fight, and Mr. Martinez is her latest target. Mr. Martinez is surely aware by now that Hefti's army of supporters will not give up in their desire to prevent him from building a building atop a building, at least not until the last mad-dog has taken its last barking breath.

Mr. Martinez, a busy general contractor with an entangled history with some of the civic leaders judging his request, has filed with the New York City Board of Standards and Appeals to receive a special permit to do this penthouse-on-a-penthouse thing, but the point of this post is that it would seem there is no level, including prevarication, to which he will not stoop. The question is to what degree the Bloomberg-style antipathy toward historic preservationists has infected the decision-makers in this matter, to what degree the ethical issues swirling around Martinez and his powerful coterie can trump the demands of community activists and elected leaders.

Let me dive into specifics now, as per a recent email from Hefti:

Completely undaunted by restrictions of the zoning law or community opposition or the fact that [Martinez' building] abuts an historic collection of 19th century houses & gardens that are older than any of the brownstones already in the Carnegie Hill Historic District, [Martinez] has actually gone ahead and applied to BSA for a Special Permit to allow him the precedent-setting-privilege of towering up above the historic skyline and adding a 13th floor to an eleven story building.

And in this curious case, the penthouse in question is, in fact, not a penthouse at all. For, as it turns out, the extant penthouse at 150 E. 93rd, is actually just a concrete box that sits on top of the building's roof. In other words, the so-called "penthouse" at 150E93 is already one whole floor above what would ordinarily be considered the penthouse.

So what the penthouse owner really wants to do here is to put a second concrete box on top of the first concrete box (the so-called "penthouse" in which he lives now)which already sits on top of the roof....

Never mind the fact that what this penthouse owner wants to do is prohibited by the NYC zoning resolution. Never mind the fact that, if approved, this 13th floor would constitute a precedent-setting breach of the historic skyline. Never mind the fact that the community is strongly opposed to this proposal. Never mind the fact that 150 E. 93rd abuts an historic collection of houses & gardens that are older than any of the brownstones already in the Carnegie Hill Historic District. And never mind the fact that the penthouse owner has not provided a structural engineering report to determine whether the roof of 150E93 could even support another floor.

Joining the 93rd Street Beautification Association in this effort are the following: Carnegie Hill Neighbors, CIVITAS, Brewery Hill Block Association and several nearby co-op board presidents, plus New York State Assemblymen Micah Kellner and Jonathan Bing; New York City Council Member Dan Garodnick and New York City Council Member Tony Avella, who chairs the zoning committee. All have written the BSA asking that it deny Martinez's special permit. The question, once again, is whether that bears any weight in comparison to the Bloombergian bargain with all the Mephistopheles' of New York real estate.

Adding fuel to this fire is the insinuation by Hefti that other examples of nattering nefariousness is raging. Before I continue, let me acknowledge that while I have not independently verified the following information, I feel there is sufficient reason to publish it on The Clyde Fitch Report; I do reserve the right, however, to amend this post should refuting evidence come to light. For now, it seems that Martinez's attorney, Fred Becker, did testify to the BSA that the penthouse currently atop 150 E. 93rd Street has existed since the building's construction in 1923; should this prove to be true, the argument might follow that the penthouse is, in actuality, merely the top story of the building. Yet, if this is the case, why did Martinez apply for a 2005 permit -- I refer you to Department of Buildings Job Number 103369196, line 4 -- to build a penthouse on top of the building? Is that not 82 years after the time when Becker claims the penthouse was built?

Here is a link to Martinez' application with the Department of Buildings. Notice the wording:


Was this 1923 too? What a terrific guy President Harding is! What's Mayor Hylan up to?

Becker's disingenuousness -- is prevarication a better word? -- aside, there are other elements in this matter that I am choose to omit from this post, pending further investigation. The point is that either we collectively start objecting to the encroaching, unchecked hegemony of real estate interests everywhere across New York, fighting each battle and helping each other out, or we are to blame for the city being aesthetically, architecturally and perhaps even fiscally doomed.

And no, that doesn't mean I'm anti-development. I am, rather, ardently pro-truth.

So I ask you to register your objection to this penthouse-on-a-penthouse plan in a neighborhood that you probably do not live in. I ask you out of civic duty, solidarity, should you be so moved.


Objections to the penthouse proposal can be made in person at the Public Hearing on January 27th (where each person has 3 minutes to speak) or sent in writing in advance of the Public Hearing by REGULAR MAIL: Ms. Meenakshi Srinivasan, Chair, NYC BSA, 40 Rector Street, 9th Floor, New York, NY 10006-1705; EMAIL: By clicking on this link and filling in the fields - or FAX: 212.788.8769 (attention: Mr. Ron Rizzotti).

All objections must include the following information: BSA Calendar Number - 162-08-BZ, Property ID - 150 East 93rd Street, Block 1521, Lot 51, Manhattan.

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