Eliot Brown Oct. 6, 2009, 6:16 p.m.
There’s a rule of thumb that applies to the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission: The agency shouldn’t try to designate a building a landmark against its owner’s will unless the commission’s ready for a loud public skirmish. And, generally in the Bloomberg administration, the commission has steered clear of such battles, making for relatively few such messy designation attempts.
So in July, it came as something of a surprise when the LPC took the confrontational action of starting the designation process—an act known as “calendaring”—on a pair of connected buildings at Broadway and West 57th Street owned by Extell Development, one of the city’s most active developers.
Indeed, the move has provoked a major fight, as Extell scrambles to ward off the LPC’s designation drive. In recent weeks, the firm has been successfully urging unions, trade groups and, most notably, key members of the City Council to demonstrate push-back against the commission. Already, an LPC vote that had been expected this week has been delayed, with no new vote yet scheduled.
At the same time, preservationists, who have often been critical of the LPC for too frequently deferring to the desires of developers, support the designation—though the buildings had not been among their top priorities.
Both of the Howard Van Doren Shaw–designed buildings, 225 West 57th Street and 1780 Broadway, were built by the B. F. Goodrich Company in 1909 and were part of “Automobile Row,” a concentration of car dealerships, many of which are already landmarked. Extell’s argument is that it was blindsided by the designation effort, and landmarking both properties would ruin its prime development site, precluding the company from building a $1 billion–plus commercial tower. (According to property records, it already has a $256 million mortgage out on the site.)
Accordingly, the firm, which is led by Gary Barnett, has mobilized. Using its own preservation consultant, Extell submitted a compromise plan—landmark only 1780 Broadway, the old B. F. Goodrich headquarters—arguing that the history of the 12-story, brick 225 West 57th Street does not merit landmark status and that its demolition should be permitted.
Extell has leaned on key unions, including the New York Hotel and Motel Trades Council and the Building and Construction Trades Council, both of which have pull with the Bloomberg administration and on the Council, urging them to lobby against the landmarking and for the tower. The unions have each submitted testimony to the LPC in support of the compromise plan, as did the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects. The powerful Real Estate Board of New York opposes landmark designation for either building.
THE MOST NOTABLE SUBMISSION to the LPC, however, came from four council members: Dan Garodnick, the local representative; Jessica Lappin, chairwoman of the landmarks committee; Melinda Katz, chairwoman of the land-use committee; and Council Speaker Christine Quinn. Their submission, a letter dated Aug. 28, explicitly urged landmark designation of 1780 Broadway while suggesting that the signatories oppose—or in the very least, are leaning against—so designating 225 West 57th Street. The letter picked up on many of Extell’s themes, including the fact that the buildings have previously been considered, and subsequently passed over, for designation.
“[A] balance must be found between preserving the city’s architectural heritage and allowing for new development on sites where buildings stand today,” the letter said. It goes on to note that 225 West 57th Street was “never occupied” by B. F. Goodrich, that “it is not clear how prominent the automobile industry was at this location, giving this building lesser historical significance” and that “there are other earlier-built and better-preserved examples” of similar schools of architecture in New York.
The letter has enraged preservation groups—though few were willing to publicly denounce the elected officials, citing their typically strong relationships with Ms. Lappin and Mr. Garodnick—as they said the action was unprecedented.
Landmarking supporters contend that the site’s economic development potential is irrelevant, as the question before the LPC is over the landmark quality of the buildings. Further, the main preservation groups that have weighed in say the buildings are effectively one structure, calling for both to be designated. “If we let developers tear down landmark-quality buildings because they want to put up something new and more income-producing, we would not have any landmarks left,” said Assemblyman Dick Gottfried, who supports landmarking both buildings.
Asked about the discord between his position and that of the four council members, Mr. Gottfried noted that neighboring Manhattan officials are typically unified on landmarks issues. “It’s unusual that we would be divided, or that we would have differing opinions,” he said.
ALL OF THIS HAS put considerable pressure on the LPC and its chairman, Robert Tierney, a onetime counsel to Mayor Ed Koch. Mr. Tierney and his agency have been under pressure to be more responsive to preservation concerns from advocacy groups and, perhaps more significantly, from The New York Times. Late last year, the paper ran a series of articles, sandwiched by two scornful editorials, that highlighted the arbitrary nature of many LPC actions and the commission’s tendency to side with developers on many issues. (The Times also ran a story, in November 2008, apart from the series that focused on the two B. F. Goodrich buildings, noting that they were slated for demolition. At the start of 2009, the LPC informed Extell it was planning on landmarking the buildings; it had also notified the previous owner around 2002 that it was considering designation.)
Indeed, Mr. Tierney and the broader 11-member LPC have found themselves in an awkward spot, given that the agency has effectively endorsed landmarking both buildings (during Mr. Tierney’s tenure, the LPC has almost exclusively calendared buildings that it wants to see designated as landmarks, and it is very rare to de-calendar a building). If the full LPC is to accede to Extell’s wishes, it would open itself to the charge that it backed down in the face of pressure from a powerful developer, and if it designates the building, it risks alienating Extell and its allies.
Further, if LPC were to go ahead with the designation of both properties, it would punt to the council the final decision making—and any accompanying political fallout—as that body has the power to veto a landmark designation (though that, too, is very rare).
A spokesman for Extell declined to comment.
Mr. Garodnick and Ms. Lappin did not respond to multiple requests for comment, and Ms. Quinn and Ms. Katz declined to comment beyond their letter.