Protesters were too late to save beloved 'villa'

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For nearly a century, three sisters have stood watch over the place where the Harlem River joins the mighty Hudson via Spuyten Duvil Creek. Soon there will only be two.

It appears the Villa Rosa Bonheur, for now located at 2395 Palisade Ave., will be demolished in the coming weeks to make way for a high-rise apartment building. The owner, New Jersey-based Timber Equities, filed the remaining permits with the city’s buildings department just before Thanksgiving.

Built in 1924 by John J. McKelvey — developer, writer, attorney and the first editor of Harvard Law Review — he envisioned the Villa Rosa, Villa Charlotte Brontë and Villa Victoria as answers to encroachment of the “ugly city” into Spuyten Duyvil’s idyllic scenery. Instead of cold high-rise apartment buildings, McKelvey built apartments into European-style villas that were just as luxurious on the outside as in.

Perched on a rocky cliff overlooking the river, Charlotte Brontë and Victoria stand beside each other — two fairytale castles replete with Old World charm — possibly the best-known example of Bronx beauty.

Time and circumstance weren’t as kind to Villa Rosa, one of the first multi-family homes built in Spuyten Duyvil. Just a quick jaunt down Palisade Avenue from her sisters, the years were apparent from the exterior. But the history the house holds was beautiful to her neighbors.

Endangered homes

Members of the community group Friends of Spuyten Duyvil tried to earn landmark status for the building in 1998, said neighbor Jodie Colón , trying again unsuccessfully in 2005.

“The Villa Rosa Bonheur was never landmarked,” she said. “It is historic in that it relates to the history of the development of Spuyten Duyvil and the character of it.”

Then two years ago, Timber Equities — a development company based in East Rutherford, New Jersey — bought the villa for $2.6 million. Rumors circulated the new owner planned to demolish it and build a high-rise apartment — the very thing McKelvey fought against.

Almost a year later, a work crew and heavy machinery appeared on the villa’s property. They began chipping away at the building’s roof.

“And the neighbors went crazy,” Colón said.

Their fears were dispelled, however, when DOB approved the developer’s plans. Instead of razing the building, the work permits stated they planned to renovate the interior, converting the seven apartments into 11.

But as work continued, it became apparent to the neighborhood the crew was going beyond what was permitted. Large chunks of the roof were removed — not originally part of the interior demolition permit Timber Equities received — and workers began removing exterior walls, using machinery instead of hand tools as required by city permits.

It was at that point it became crystal clear this wasn’t just a renovation — it was a demolition. Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz told The Riverdale Press last year that when he met with Timber Equities’ spokeswoman, he was told there were plans to replace Villa Rosa Bonheur with a seven-story apartment building.

While Dinowitz said he didn’t think the owner was breaking the law, there was a bait and switch.

“You knew exactly what you were going to do when you bought the property,” Dinowitz said at the time. “I personally believe that was their intention all along.”

As neighbors mounted a grassroots movement to prevent demolition, and lawmakers called emergency meetings, complaints about the project flooded DOB. Non-permitted work, demolition after hours, lack of posted permits, unsafe scaffolding and netting, expired site fence permits, possible lead and asbestos exposure, and even a portable toilet set up in the street were called into the city.

Although several neighbors pointed out that the level of demolition being done was not permitted, DOB issued some stop work orders, but never intervened to end prohibited work.

Facing the inevitable

Now, after a year of complaints, it seems the Villa Rosa’s demise is at hand. Timber Equities sent Community Board 8 a letter stating demolition would begin in early December.

Neighbors are worried. They feel some things were not done correctly.

“They have a group of very, very alert residents up there,” CB8 land use committee chair Charles Moerdler said. “They raised the question that there aren’t environmental checks going on in compliance with the law. Remember, we caught them a few months ago having asbestos that wasn’t attended to. So we have (environmental protection) on constant alert.”

One of those alert residents was Stephanie Coggins, not much of a public community activist before the Villa Rosa Bonheur demolition, but who started to take center stage representing her neighbors soon after.

“I wanted to make it clear that this is not a matter of trying to harass the developer or stop them from doing it,” she said. “It’s just basically protecting the community because we’ve been burned in terms of the asbestos abatement, and just want to make sure that they follow the rules.”

Those rules have been followed, and all the asbestos has been properly addressed, said Jeff Torkin, a Fieldston resident who is a partner in Timber Equities. The developer invited licensed asbestos investigator Taylor Weber to the Palisade Avenue property Nov. 14, according to DOB records. Weber checked the house’s facade, cellar, basement, all four floors, attic and roof and found no asbestos.

A week later, Timber Equities filed a new work permit, finishing what they started a year ago.

“The demolition permit has been issued and demolition is underway,” Torkin said. Construction of the new building is set to begin early next year.

‘No turning back’

Neighbors remain skeptical, said Alex Mustelier — one of them. People will be more likely to report traffic, street blockages, damage to others’ property and any unsafe conditions.

“The sad, sad news, however, is that there’s no turning back,” Mustelier said. “Our only hope at this point in time is that there could perhaps be some modifications to the proposed building that makes it a little less ugly.”

People living nearby have lost hope the city will enforce building rules, Colón said.

“I’ve heard people in the construction industry say that they just factor fines into their cost of doing business,” she said. “And if you can take the shortcut and no one knows it’s a shortcut, you’re ahead of the game. If you get caught, it’s not that much money.”

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