Construction permits pulled at Underground Railroad site

The efforts of a group of preservationists to halt construction work at a Chelsea rowhouse that was a stop on the Underground Railroad recently led the city to revoke the developer’s permits to build a penthouse addition.

The Hopper Gibbons House, at 339 W. 29th St., is currently under consideration for landmark designation due its rich history of housing an abolitionist couple who harbored fugitive slaves during the Civil War.

Last week, the city Department of Buildings revoked the developer’s construction permit “related to the job to vertically and horizontally enlarge the building,” said DOB spokesperson Carly Sullivan. The plan includes the addition of a fifth floor and penthouse to the 1847 building, with much of the construction already completed despite the fact that it had already been deemed illegal.

In May, the DOB levied a stop-work order on the property, even though ongoing construction work had inexplicably been allowed to continue after the developer’s plans failed a DOB audit in 2008.

The October 2008 audit stated that additional work violated the city’s Sliver Law limiting the height of buildings relative to their width. The addition of a fifth story—even without the penthouse, which is currently under construction—still raised the rowhouse to 64 feet rather than 60 feet, the maximum height allowed by law.

Last year, local preservationists Julie Finch and Fern Luskin started a campaign to landmark the property and compel the owners to stop construction on the building between Eighth and Ninth Aves. But news of the revocation did not exactly give Finch cause to rejoice.

“We’re very happy about the revocation of the permit, but [DOB] did revoke a permit last October, and it slipped back in again,” she said, describing the back-and-forth between the builders and the department. “I’m still skeptical. I haven’t bought a bottle of champagne yet.”

In January, the city Landmark Preservation Commission held a hearing to review the history of the Hopper Gibbons House as well as 11 surrounding buildings for possible designation as the Lamartine Place Historic District. The LPC calendared the buildings for a vote, and a spokesperson for the commission stated that it will likely occur in the fall.

The DOB seemed to take more interest in the property after preservationists—including Assemblymember Richard Gottfried and Historic Districts Council Executive Director Simeon Bankoff—held a May press conference outside the building to decry the ongoing construction.

“On this and some other things, the Buildings Department is often something of a mystery, and sometimes seems to have a split personality, where part of the Department will do the right thing… and then somehow soon after that the dark side of the department remerges and someone reinstates the permit,” Gottfried said.

Bankoff noted that if owners Tony and Nick Mamounas decided to reapply for the permits, it would trigger a review by the LPC due to the current review process.

“It’s been such a complicated issue,” he said, acknowledging that in the past, permits had been rescinded or revoked, then subsequently reinstated despite the work failing to adhere to building requirements.

Lisi de Bourbon, a spokesperson for the LPC, confirmed that the owners would only have to get approval from the commission if they submit a brand-new application, not an amendment to the current application.

“If the application is an entirely new one, it would be referred to us before DOB issues the permit,” she said.

Meanwhile, the project’s architect remains committed to seeing construction through to the end. After previously stating that “[a]ny history that was there is 100 percent gone” and declaring the proposed work “permanent,” architect John Hulme reaffirmed this week that “we are moving forward.” He added that the owner would attempt to finish construction “as soon as possible.”