|NY Times. |
December 31, 2003
In Sutton Place's Backyard, Private Oasis on Public Land
By CHARLES V. BAGLI
his is the story of the garden at 1 Sutton Place South, a verdant jewel atop Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive that serves as the lush backyard for one of the city's most exclusive addresses.
It is an urban tale of blue-blood money, city planning, secret compacts and, ultimately, private control of public land.
The story goes something like this: In 1939, the city grabbed most of the co-op backyard under eminent domain to build what was then called the East River Drive. In turn, the city agreed to lease the land atop the highway back to 1 Sutton Place and its residents for $1 a year.
That lease, as it turns out, expired in 1990, but the board members at 1 Sutton Place admit that they, with great care, remained strategically mum about the lapse. They even swore prospective apartment buyers to absolute secrecy about the matter.
Whether the city did not notice, or did not care, it had little to say about the garden that had become one of the building's great appeals. Neither the Dinkins, Giuliani or Bloomberg administrations made a move to repossess the property for 13 years.
Now, though, roughly seven decades after the city began building the F.D.R., the state needs to rehabilitate the highway, and to tear up the co-op's garden in order to get it done - finally forcing into the open the question of who actually owns and controls the green oasis.
Sutton Place - a stretch of blocks north of the United Nations and home at one time or another to Greta Garbo, Henry Kissinger and I. M. Pei - has long been synonymous with wealth and exclusivity in Manhattan, where money alone does not always guarantee you an apartment. Gloria Vanderbilt once charged that River House, regarded as a quintessential Sutton Place address, denied her an apartment because of her friendship with the entertainer Bobby Short, who is black. The building's board said she simply did not have the money.
The residents of 1 Sutton Place - the socialite C. Z. Guest once lived in the penthouse, the designer Bill Blass was a tenant, and the designer Carolyne Roehm lives there now - want the lawn, the rhododendrons and the shade trees restored, and returned to their use. But the city may want it for a riverfront esplanade that would link the small city parks - more brick courtyards than leafy green respites - immediately to the north and south of the garden.
"The reconstruction of the F.D.R. provides an opportunity for us to consider creating an esplanade and connecting the adjacent parkland," said Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe.
That does not sit well with the residents of 1 Sutton Place, who pay millions of dollars for their apartments after meeting the stiff social and financial requirements of the co-op board.
Turning their backyard into a public esplanade "would ruin one of the most wonderful buildings in New York," said Betty Sherrill, a resident and former president of the co-op board. "That would be mean to all the people who live there. It'd be right in front of their windows. They paid a lot of money for those apartments. The city doesn't even keep up the parks on the right and left of us, much less the one in front of us."
The Parks Department has not yet broached the issue with the co-op. But the State Department of Transportation, which is spending $136 million to rehabilitate the F.D.R. from 54th to 63rd Streets, has promised the co-op that it will restore the garden when it is done, at an estimated cost of $400,000.
Still, the future of the garden, and whether it will be turned into a waterfront park for public use, could well become an incendiary issue for the residents along the neighboring blocks. They have long complained that there is too little public park space in the neighborhood.
"It's a touchy issue for us, to say the least," said Edward Rubin, a member of the local planning board, Community Board 6.
The 13-story Italian Renaissance building at 1 Sutton Place South was built in 1927 at a time when the city's social topography was undergoing an upheaval. The Vanderbilts, Morgans, Delanos, Havermeyers and other members of the city's elite were migrating from Fifth and Park Avenues farther east, buying newly renovated townhouses along what would become known as Sutton Place.
The Phipps family, whose fortune was based in Pittsburgh's steel mills, and the architectural firm Cross & Cross erected 1 Sutton Place on the site of a coal yard and brewery. Designed by Rosario Candela, the most sought-after architect for luxury buildings, the apartment house offered large three- and four-bedroom apartments, a triple-arched porte-cochere and a lobby with views of a private garden facing the East River.
The co-op was topped by a 17-room, 5,000-square-foot apartment and 6,000 square feet of terraces. It was originally created for Amy Phipps, who later turned it over to her son, Winston Guest, a well-known polo player, and his wife, C. Z. Guest. At one point, Janet Annenberg Hooker, a sister of Walter Annenberg, acquired the apartment, which was put on the market in 1998 for $15 million, at the time a record price.
In the 1930's, the city began construction of the East River Drive, taking away private gardens like the one at 1 Sutton Place and boat launches as it condemned land along the waterfront. Property owners formed the First Avenue Association to fight condemnation and assessments for the drive, but many owners cut their own deals with the city.
Under the terms of a 1939 agreement with the city, Paul Hammond, president of 1 Sutton Place, agreed to limit the co-op's claim for its land to $1 in return for the city's promise to build a double-decked roadway that would be covered by two feet of soil "suitable for planting."
Mr. Hammond, a real estate financier and yachtsman who won a 1928 race to Spain aboard his schooner Nina, ensured that the co-op could lease the land above the highway for a total of 50 years, with rent starting at $1 a year and rising to the grand sum of $1.46 a year in 1980.
The city-owned land accounts for 13,500 square feet of the co-op's 15,000-square-foot rear garden, according to the Department of Transportation.
The first threat to the patch of urban paradise came in 1990, when the lease expired. The co-op, for its part, said nothing, and oversight of the property was lost in the city's bureaucratic maze.
But three years later, Betsy Gotbaum, then the parks commissioner, sought to bring the co-op's garden under the control of her department, touching off a quiet debate over its fate. She noted in a memo at the time that the co-op was "very exercised about the possibility of this becoming a park."
Ms. Gotbaum, it appears, backed off pressing any case. In the memo, she concluded, "Since I am told that this is one of the 10 best residential buildings in Manhattan, it does not make sense to me for the city to create an improvement that will decrease the property value of the residences."
Ms. Gotbaum, now the city's public advocate, said in a recent interview that she did not recall details of the controversy, although she said, George Gould, the president of the co-op, was an old friend of her husband, Victor Gotbaum. A former municipal labor leader, Mr. Gotbaum worked with Mr. Gould during the dark days of the city's fiscal crisis in the 1970's.
The Parks Department became the technical custodian of the property in 1995. But nothing changed at 1 Sutton Place South, and the board took steps to keep it that way.
The members passed a resolution requiring all prospective buyers to review the semisecret status of the garden and sign a strict confidentiality agreement. The resolution explained that the board was not seeking to renew the lease because it would require a public review, which they apparently felt could go badly for the co-op's wealthy owners.
Secrecy is common in the world of New York co-ops, where many residents do not even know the names of their fellow shareholders, said Andrew Herz, the longtime lawyer for 1 Sutton Place, who helped draw up the resolution.
"Whenever you deal with something that is generally not for public dissemination, you ask people to sign a confidentiality agreement," Mr. Herz said. "People talk too much in this city anyway. We didn't want people talking about our private affairs."
Mr. Gould, the current president of the co-op and a former undersecretary of the treasury in the Reagan administration, explained that if the city did not bring up the issue, "we'd just let it go on."
As for the prospect of turning the garden into a public esplanade, Mr. Gould said: "It's not something that thrills me, in the sense of the hassle, noise and security issues. We originally owned the property down to the waterfront. It was my understanding that the lease was, in a sense, in lieu of compensation for taking the land. From our self-interested point of view, we would like to see it stay the way it is."