Residents: New Condo Building will ‘Violate the Culture’ of Their Block

If you lived here, you’d be hated by now: A rendering of 124 W. 16th St.  Courtesy David Howell Design

If you lived here, you’d be hated by now: A rendering of 124 W. 16th St. Courtesy David Howell Design

BY SAM SPOKONY  |  Well, here’s one way to make an impression on your new neighbors.

Developer Hal Einhorn and his son (and business partner) Yiannes Einhorn are planning to move into two units at the luxury condo building they’re now constructing on West 16th Street — even though many residents of the block are still furious with them over the building’s “insulting” size and facade.

Plans by the Einhorn Development Group (EDG) for the 11-story building at 124 West 16th Street — which will comprise a total of 14 residential units — came about through the purchase of additional air rights from the adjacent French Evangelical Church (at 126 West 16th Street). So a large portion of the condo building will rise directly above the 150-year-old church, while also towering above the rest of the block’s residences, all of which — aside from lots on the corners of Sixth and Seventh Avenues — are only six stories or fewer.

This newspaper first reported that, based on statements by the developer last spring, residents of the block initially believed that the building would only rise to six stories. It was only upon gaining city approval last December — a year a half after EDG had actually purchased the additional air rights — that the developer told them it was going to be nearly twice that size.

Yiannes Einhorn and Valery Einhorn (the wife of Hal and EDG’s spokesperson) heard the residents’ rage firsthand at a March 6 meeting organized by the 100 West 16th Street Block Association. And some of the harshest words came after the Einhorns confirmed their intentions to live in the new building, which is scheduled to be completed within the next two years.

“People here hate you,” said an irate Mattias Herold, who lives across the street from the development site, at 125 West 16th Street. “And even though you say you are, I wonder whether you’re actually going to live in that building, just because we all really do hate you.”

“Oh, that’s pleasant,” replied Yiannes Einhorn, who’d already been interrupted several times, during his opening remarks about the building, by jeers from the approximately 40 residents in attendance.

Those opening remarks were also followed by groans and pained exclamations after EDG’s architect revealed a rendering of 124 West 16th Street. Unlike the red brick exterior of the church and the surrounding residences, the building’s facade will be made of bluestone (which, contrary to its name, appears gray) and, due to the size of its windows, will feature a relatively large amount of glass.

Upon seeing the image, one block resident yelled, “You’ve got to be joking!” Another wondered, “Are you out of your mind?” And yet another chimed in, “Not only is it ugly, but it’s totally inappropriate for the block.”

When one woman directly asked Yiannes Einhorn if he’d ever walked down the block to see what its current buildings actually look like, the developer said he had.

“Certainly, we looked up and down the block many times,” he said. “We’re very fond of the block.”

Again, jeers from the crowd.

“This is outrageous to us, and we know it’s purely a financial play for you people,” said Doug Halsey, who lives at 130 West 16th Street. “And aside from the aesthetics, the biggest issue here is, why does this have to eclipse the rest of the buildings on the block? Why do you have to shadow our buildings?

“We really do care about this block, and the culture of this block,” he added. “And this building just violates that.”

Halsey and the other residents in attendance repeatedly urged the developer to consider lowering the building to six stories — one woman in the crowd said she would even be happy with eight or nine stories.

Yiannes Einhorn replied by saying that it’s “very unlikely” that he would consider reducing the height of the building, “because it’s not financially viable.”

Steve Dycus, another resident of 130 West 16th Street, countered that statement by claiming that the developer is already reaping a huge financial benefit on the backs of longtime tenants who have helped make the block so attractive to newcomers.

“The reason this project is going to be so profitable is because it’s able to export, or externalize, costs onto the neighborhood,” said Dycus. “We are, in other words, helping to subsidize this project.”

As the meeting continued that night, all of Einhorn’s comments simply seemed to further spur the block residents toward taking any possible action against the project.

“We’re going to fight this, we’re going to picket as much as we can within legal limits, and we’re going to make this as hard on them as possible,” said Halsey. “And it’s not just to say ‘F—k you.’ We’re fighting for our homes.”

With all that resentment pouring out, the reporter later raised the question again with the developer — do you really still plan to move in at 124 West 16th Street?

“We intend to live in the building,” Valery Einhorn told Chelsea Now in a March 10 email.

And although the planned building, with its transferred air rights approved by the city, is an entirely “as of right” development — and is already under construction — some West 16th Street residents left the March 6 meeting with a commitment to fight the building with legal action.

Daniel Nicolas, a French Evangelical Church board trustee  (standing), flanked by developer Yiannes Einhorn (left) and architect Steven Wakenshaw, took heated criticism from W. 16th St. residents at the March 6 meeting.  Photo by Sam Spokony

Daniel Nicolas, a French Evangelical Church board trustee (standing), flanked by developer Yiannes Einhorn (left) and architect Steven Wakenshaw, took heated criticism from W. 16th St. residents at the March 6 meeting. Photo by Sam Spokony

Jen Ollman, the wife of Mattias Herold, is helping to lead that charge. Along with starting a Facebook group entitled “Save 16th Street” for organizational purposes, Ollman said she and some other residents are currently in contact with several attorneys — including representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union — in order to figure out their next move.

Since the developer’s plan seems to be in line with city zoning regulations, Ollman acknowledged that it’s still somewhat unclear what the basis of that legal action will be. But she vowed to continue that fight, along with attempting to convince city officials — including Mayor Bill de Blasio — to step in and change EDG’s plans.

“Just because it’s as of right, doesn’t mean it’s right,” said Ollman. “And since it’s clear that the developer isn’t willing to compromise, we’re just going to reach out to other people who might be able to do something.”

Aside from their opinion of the Einhorns, West 16th Street residents have been very critical of the French Evangelical Church — both for failing to inform them about the air rights sale, and also for selling the air rights in the first place.

Before unloading the air rights for a still undisclosed amount of money, the church had already made $4 million by selling its previous building at 124 West 16th Street, which EDG quickly demolished to make way for its condo. Daniel Nicolas, a member of the church’s board of trustees, has previously stated that half of that money will go towards funding repairs to the church’s aging, dilapidated infrastructure and facade (since the repairs are estimated to cost around $2 million). The church’s multi-purpose “community room” will also be renovated as part of that work.

And as part of its deal with EDG, the church is also getting its own three floors — or around 5,000 square feet of space — in the new condo building, which will likely provide the institution with yet another source of income.

Nicolas was also in attendance at the March 6 community meeting, although he showed up an hour late.

During that meeting, Ollman and others wondered whether the church (which does not pay taxes) required so much more cash — the air rights sale likely netted them millions more — when $4 million will much be more than enough to conduct the necessary renovations of its relatively small, two-story building.

“This isn’t how neighbors behave, and it’s just a highly lucrative deal for your church,” Ollman said to Nicolas, referring to the air rights sale. “How much money do you guys need? Where is it all going?”

Nicolas responded by saying that the church has been “operating in the red” for many years, and claimed that the church leadership wanted the additional money in order to “maintain an endowment for future renovations.”

He also claimed that, following the repairs, the church’s multi-purpose room will be open for use as a meeting space by block residents.

But Paul Groncki, chair of the 100 West 16th Street Block Association, was highly skeptical of the church’s alleged good intentions.

“Well, you’ve never made that space available to us before,” he told Nicolas. “We’ve tried to have meetings there and we’re always denied.”

Nicolas declined to comment on the block residents’ decidedly unfavorable reaction to EDG’s condo building, and the fact that the church never made them aware of the air rights sale that made it possible.

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