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Midtown landmarks push underway


Preservation groups are pushing for landmark protection of many Midtown-East buildings built between 1900 and 1965

By Orlando Lee Rodriguez

As the Midtown-East rezoning proposal makes it way to an eventual vote in the city council, the Historic Districts Council has revealed its list of structures around Grand Central Station that they feel should be protected from redevelopment.

The collection of 33 residential, institutional, hotel and office buildings were constructed between the years 1900 through 1965 and include designs by architects George Browne Post, Emery Roth, James Rogers Gamble and Frank Lloyd Wright.

“East Midtown is home to many significant commercial buildings,” said Simeon Bankoff, Executive Director of the Historic Districts Council in a statement. “While there is certainly room for exciting and needed new development in the area, it is important to consider the numerous unprotected buildings of architectural and historic significance in order to preserve the essential character and history of the district.”

Buildings on the proposed protected list would include: the Graybar Building, the Pershing Square Building, The Yale Club, The Roosevelt Hotel, The Lexington Hotel, the Union Carbide Building and the Minnie Young Residence.

The Midtown-East rezoning plan, supported by the Bloomberg Administration and Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY), would increase floor area ratios (FARs) which presently stand at 15 on the avenues and 12 for mid-block properties. The proposed changes slated for 2017 would allow for a base FAR as high as 30 in a proposed special sub-district around Grand Central Station.

Landmark designation has been a contentious fight between pro-development advocates and the preservationist movement since Greenwich Village activist Jane Jacobs battled city planner Robert Moses over an expressway through Washington Square Park.

In 1963, the movement gained traction after the original Penn Station was razed to build an office tower and Madison Square Garden. In October of 1966 the National Historic Preservation Act was signed into law by then-president Lyndon B. Johnson.

“London didn’t tear down its historic architecture to build the Shard, and neither should New York,” said Andrea Goldwyn of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, speaking to the city planning commission. “The blend of new and old is what keeps New York vital and unique. That principle should be a starting point for revitalizing this significant area, not an afterthought as it is presented.”

Advocates however say the higher FAR is necessary for New York office space to meet the needs of growing companies that utilize the open floor, ‘bullpen’ model made famous ironically by Bloomberg LP. Ceiling heights are also an issue, as companies, now reliant on technology need infrastructure space.

“The issue with preserving existing buildings is ceiling heights and column spacing,” said Robert Knakal president of Massey Knakal. “Even if you renovate, you still cannot get the 15-20 foot ceilings companies need unless you take out every other floor. It’s great that the Trade Center is being developed and it’s great that Hudson Yards is being developed. But we need new office product in Midtown Manhattan.”

The Historic Districts Council is the third organization in the last couple of months to take a firm stand against the Midtown-East rezoning proposal as it is presently written. Back in October the Municipal Arts Society presented their own vision what the area around Grand Central Station should look like over the next 100 years. Skidmore, Owings & Merril (SOM), WXY architecture and Urban Design and Foster & Partners were commissioned for the designs.

“The public experience must be at the center of the conversation — not the size of buildings,” Municipal Art Society president Vin Cipolla said in a release. “As Midtown evolves, we also must ensure that we protect the buildings that are essential to our history and find ways of updating and adapting existing buildings. Any new development needs to meet the standards set by some of the great buildings in this area.”

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