Apartment fix-up becomes tear-down

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There’s an old saying that you should believe nothing of what you hear, and only half of what you see.

When a construction fence went up around the classic John J. McKelvy-developed Villa Rosa Bonheur at 2395 Palisade Ave., neighbors assumed the worst. The classic apartment building — considered one of the earliest in the Bronx built on a cliff now located under the Henry Hudson Bridge — was going to be completely razed to make room for yet another apartment tower.

Yet, permits filed with the city’s buildings department pointed to just an interior demolition, suggesting plans that would construct 11 units where seven originally existed, all inside the same building envelope.

Every once in a great while, however, you should believe everything you hear and everything you see. Because it seems the Villa Rosa Bonheur is indeed fini.

The new owners of the property overlooking the Harlem River — who purchased the building and the land for $2.6 million last November — have every intention of fully tearing down the old apartment building, and replacing it with a seven-story tower complete with 55 units. At least that’s what was intimated to Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz by the ownership team on Monday after the lawmaker decided to dig a little deeper on what was happening on the property.

“We have an amazing community, and it’s worth preserving buildings like that,” Dinowitz said. “It’s worth preserving private houses. That is what gives our community the character that it has, a nice mix of homes.”

Dinowitz has a bit of a personal connection to Villa Rosa Bonheur. He’s never lived there, but he remembers spending at least part of his 30th birthday there once some years back. His office has been flooded with complaints and messages of concern from neighbors around 2395 Palisade, and felt it was time to do something about it.

Dinowitz scheduled the meeting with Councilman Andrew Cohen and Community Board 8 chair Rosemary Ginty with what the lawmaker described as a lobbying group hired to represent the developers, Cahill Strategies, namely the firm’s founder and chief executive, Diane Cahill.

“I spoke with her at length,” Dinowitz said. “The bottom line on what they’re doing there is that they are knocking the building down and build seven stories in its place. If I’m not mistaken, they said they are going to ‘develop’ the site, and I’m going to take that to mean you’re going to knock this building down to replace it with a bigger building.”

Neither Cahill nor anyone from her Long Island-based agency returned a request late Tuesday for comment. A late request for comment to Ginty was pending return at press time, as was one to Charles Moerdler, chair of CB8’s land use committee, which is scheduled to get an update on the project by Cahill Strategies at a meeting Oct. 25.

One neighbor, Jennifer Scarlott, said she found the news “incredibly depressing.”

“As somebody who lives just up the road from that building in this corner of Spuyten Duyvil, I am outraged,” she said.

“It’s a very fragile and very little spot right there on a cliff overlooking the Harlem River, and even more importantly, what is there right now is special. Part of why it’s special is, aesthetically, it’s a beauty. It’s a gem architecturally.”

McKelvy built Villa Rosa Bonheur in 1924 as a co-operative, along with sister buildings Villa Charlotte Brontë and Villa Victoria. According to historical accounts, he was alarmed by what he called the encroaching “city ugly” — the tall, brick apartment buildings that made up the heart of Manhattan at the time — and instead pushed for a completely different aesthetic in the Bronx.

While McKelvy couldn’t stave off the larger development, he did create a small pocket in Riverdale that now — almost ironically — is falling to the very fate he was trying to avoid.

“Talk about disrespecting the neighborhood, treating an old building like that,” Scarlott said. “Wow, it feels really bad.”

Dinowitz made it clear he didn’t feel the owner — recognized in some permit filings as Joseph Seidenfeld of Timber Equities — was doing anything illegal. At the same time, however, plans like this may have been slightly better received without the misdirects of obtaining permits just for interior demolition.

“But that’s not the point,” Dinowitz said. “They told us they bought the property and didn’t know what to do with it. But you don’t spend whatever you’re going to spend buying the property simply to convert seven units to 11 units. You knew exactly what you were going to do when you bought the property. I personally believe that was their intention all along.”

The agenda for CB8’s land use committee already is pretty full for the Oct. 25 meeting, but it’s likely 2395 Palisade could take center stage. But even by then, it might be too late. The developer has already received a revised permit to fully demolish the building, Dinowitz said, although that permit was not yet available through the buildings department’s website late Tuesday.

And that’s just salt on the wound for the unlikely Dinowitz ally.

“I feel a bit hopeless right now because of how long this thing has been exposed to the elements,” Scarlott said of the partially demolished roof. “It’s had a good month and a half of rain, and I don’t think that bodes well.

“I get an emotional reaction every time I drive by it, seeing it in the state that it’s in. But at the same time it seems to symbolize our society’s terrible priorities of money over a setting in natural and historical surroundings.”

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