After Push by Extell, Landmarks Backs Down Over West 57th Street Building
Eliot Brown Nov. 10, 2009, 3:44 p.m.
The city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission backed off its effort to landmark a B.F. Goodrich Company building on West 57th Street, a rare retreat by the commission and one that follows aggressive pushback from development giant Extell, which plans a mixed-use skyscraper on the property.
The LPC on Tuesday voted 6-3 to remove the building, 225 West 57th Street, from consideration as a landmark, just four months after the same board voted to consider it.
Typically, the LPC agrees to consider only those properties it expects to approve as landmarks, but, as became clear in recent months, this property was different. An eight-story office building that was built in conjunction with another B.F. Goodrich building at 1780 Broadway (that one was approved Tuesday as a landmark), Extell was vigorously opposed to its designation, as the firm said it would ruin its prime development site on the block. (Claiming no knowledge of the landmarks issue, Extell assembled at considerable cost: the mortgage on the site alone is for $265 million.)
The firm, which has worked with Landmarks in the past, enlisted unions and industry groups to help it fight the action, and it successfully urged four key Council members, including Council Speaker Christine Quinn, to send a letter tacitly urging the LPC to act the way it did Tuesday.
In his remarks on the vote at the commission’s meeting, LPC chairman Robert Tierney suggested the Council resistance was a major factor.
“I do not believe this building rises to the level of New York City individual landmark, particularly when compared to the exceptional buildings that already have been designated on Automobile Row,” he said. “In light of opposition to this designation from the City Council, and certain members of the City Council, the likelihood that that body will overturn any designation of 225 West 57th, I believe that in this case … the Commission should make its priority the designation of the building for which there is a consensus of support.”
THE SAGA SURROUNDING THIS site is a bit of a curious one. It’s rare for the LPC to begin the landmarking process on a building–an act known as calendaring–over the owner’s objections. But here, seemingly emboldened, the LPC started to landmark the building of one of the city’s largest, and rather well connected, developers, against its will.
The bold action came not over a particularly notable or high-profile building. The building at 225 West 57th Street is arguably unremarkable at first glance–certainly no stunning sight or great architectural feat. Nor was it ever a priority for preservation groups until Extell began to fight back against the designation, though some had been recommending its designation in recent years. (The New York Times wrote an article on the buildings in late December, a bit before the LPC informed Extell it was considering landmarking the buildings. The paper has run a number of disparaging articles and editorials criticizing the LPC for what it labels an arbitrary and often developer-friendly approach).
But once the LPC preliminarily acknowledged that the 57th Street building, along with the Broadway building, were worthy of landmark designation, preservation groups contend, it would be improper for the agency to back down in the face of political pressure.
Needless to say, the preservationists were not pleased by the LPC’s action on Tuesday.
“I am appalled,” Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, said after the vote. “I don’t think that the Landmarks Commission should be considering such political features in the landmarking. This opens the door to being an owner-consent situation. The law as it stands has nothing to do with owner consent.”
Extell, however, seemed relieved, and Raizy Haas, a senior vice president at the company, started to talk about the next steps. “We’re talking to a couple of architects,” she said. “We were very focused on this phase of the project, so now we’re going to start planning the real building. Obviously, the design will be slightly modified due to the preservation of 1780.”
And what of the LPC action?
“I think this is a good compromise that serves the purpose,” she said.
The compromise, of course, spares the City Council members on the issue, leaving the LPC to take all the heat from the preservationists. The Council has the right to overturn a landmarking decision by the LPC, though such an action is very rare and would subject the members there–who, unlike the LPC members, are elected–to criticism of their own.
-With reporting by Matt Frassica