Neighbors’ Restrictive Covenant is Proactive Preservation of Private Property |

Neighbors’ Restrictive Covenant is Proactive Preservation of Private Property

Open green yards seen from the 324 W. 20th St. roof, looking slightly eastward. | Photo by Carol J. Ott

BY RANIA RICHARDSON | In an ingenious plan to preserve privately owned green space, a group of Chelsea neighbors teamed up to protect their backyards from development. After collaborating on the terms, six owners from W. 19th and 20th Sts. (btw. Eighth & Ninth Aves.) signed a contract that prohibits them from building behind their homes that stand in close proximity. The contract indicates that each party has determined that restrictions on development in their respective rear yards is of significant benefit to each and “for the common good of all.”

As a clause in a deed or lease, this contractual “restrictive covenant” limits what an owner can do with the property and allows surrounding property owners with similar agreements to enforce the terms in court. If the real estate changes hands, the restrictive covenant continues to apply, as it “runs with the land,” as part of the deed or lease. In New York City, if homeowners institute restrictive covenants, approvals by the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) will not override them.

Carol J. Ott, co-president of the 300 W. 20th St. Block Association, spearheaded the initiative in a pre-emptive move after the LPC approved a rear yard extension of 334 W. 20th St. and then one for 318 W. 20th St., despite protests by the community that brought support from Community Board 4 (CB4) and their Chelsea Land Use (CLU) Committee, followed by additional support by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, New York State Senator Brad Hoylman, New York Assemblymember Dick Gottfried, and New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson (whose area of coverage includes Chelsea).

In a March 9 email statement to Chelsea Now, Johnson noted, “I share the community’s concern about rampant development, especially how it affects air, light, and green spaces in these midblock yards. I stood with Chelsea residents to help protect these cherished open spaces and I commend the community for taking collective action to include a restrictive covenant to protect their properties from future development that would otherwise be inconsistent with the character of the district.”

A view from W. 19th St. shows the rear of brownstones from 334 W. 20th St. (far left) to 322 W. 20th St. (far right). | Photo by Nick Werner

Concerned for the rest of her block when the LPC approved an extension for 318 W. 20th St., Ott was spurred into action. “The back extensions of these two buildings will act as bookends to the courtyard and significantly reduce the open space,” she said, envisioning the end result of work that has not yet begun.

Her first step was to rally her neighbors to consider the options. Some residents have a friendly and longstanding relationship typified by barbeques, alfresco cocktail parties, and children climbing over fences to play with each other (in yards that date back more than 100 years). Nevertheless, despite being a 20-year resident of the 300 block of W. 20th St., like many New Yorkers, she did not know all her neighbors. It was not simple to find the names of all the other owners in the mix of brownstones, co-ops, and rental apartments. Resources from her work as the publisher and editor-in-chief of Habitat Magazine, a publication for co-ops and condo boards of directors, became invaluable to her research.

Ott sent letters and emails, and made phone calls. Not everyone was available or in a position to participate. Finally, with six building owners joining in, the group enlisted legal counsel and engaged in many discussions. One sticking point was the duration of the covenant, an economic consideration should anyone wish to sell their property. The group compromised on 15 years. The agreement was made on Nov. 28, 2017 and ends on Dec. 31, 2032, at which time it can be renewed if all owners at that time agree.

Adding a wrinkle to the undertaking was the fact that the W. 20 St. side of the block falls within the West Chelsea Historic District and the W. 19 St. side does not. Four from the group are from W. 20 St. and two are from W. 19 St. This is not the only issue affecting the block, as W. 19 St. between Eighth and Ninth Aves. is currently in the news due to concerns about construction at 345 and 347. Late last year, the block was also scrutinized by preservationists because of demolition to the Federal style facades of 347 and 349, as well as the foundation 347.

Rooftop view from W. 19th St. overlooking the rear of the row of brownstones on W. 20th St (btw. Eighth & Ninth Aves.). The restrictive covenant includes buildings within this area. | Photo by Nick Werner

Encapsulating the entire matter, Ott said, “The fight was to preserve open space — and in our case it’s green space — and it’s astounding that on one hand the city has a sustainability plan that speaks to the benefits of green space and run-off areas, while another city arm, LPC, doesn’t even take this into account.”

In a March 7 email, LPC spokesperson Zodet Negron stated, “The Commission has long recognized that additions or extensions at the rear of historic row houses are both historically and architecturally appropriate. The modest extensions approved at 318 and 334 W. 20th St. were appropriate to the buildings and the district. Nevertheless, property owners are entitled to set limits for themselves on the types and scale of development. Such limits reflect the aesthetic views and other values of these homeowners and not the appropriateness of rear yard additions under the Landmarks Law.”

In these circumstances, it’s no surprise that a group of self-reliant citizens have banded together to put provisions into law that will ensure the integrity of the verdant space behind their homes.

Looking west from 324 W. 20th St., in the direction of St. Peter’s Chelsea (which is also on the block), the courtyards of W. 20th St. In this section of the block, the W. 19th St. courtyards are fairly shallow (and not visible here), unlike those toward the east. | Photo by Carol J. Ott