It is possible to look at the 80- and 90-year-old towers around Grand Central Terminal as buildings that give east Midtown the desirable luster of civic history. It is equally possible to look at them as the buildings that give east Midtown the deathly shroud of commercial obsolescence. (As the photos above are meant to show, it is also possible to see the buildings in either light.)
How the city looks and feels — and why it got that way.
The Bloomberg administration is advancing an ambitious rezoning proposal for east Midtown (PDF) that would increase allowable building density and encourage developers over the years to assemble some large sites for enormous new office towers. To earn greater density, developers would pay for improvements to the subway and pedestrian network. In some cases, with public review, they could build even denser buildings if their designs made what the City Planning Department called “a significant contribution to the skyline” and to the pedestrian realm.
But not if there are landmarks in the middle of the development sites.
So the question of whether any more buildings in east Midtown merit official landmark status — besides those that are already designated — is more than a preservation issue. It could affect the city’s economy.
Two position papers released Wednesday answered the question quite differently.
In “Icons, Placeholders and Leftovers: Midtown East Report” (PDF), the Real Estate Board of New York and its allies in the Midtown21C coalition concluded, “The critical landmarks have been designated.” They rejected every building identified by preservation groups as being worthy of landmark consideration.
“Landmarking runs the risk of slowing or stopping the fission process of continuous transformation that has created Midtown East,” said the report, which was prepared by the consultants George E. Thomas and Susan Nigra Snyder of Philadelphia and Joel S. Weinstein, an engineer in New York.
“Any disruption in the process runs the risk of stalling or stopping development — and curtailing one of the great sources of real estate and wage taxes that pay the city’s regional bills,” the report said.
Besides that, the report said, a landmark designation can threaten the very building it is intended to protect, since masonry towers built before World War II suffer from the “inherent vice” of materials that have reached the end of their life spans or were assembled with insufficient safeguards against moisture, weathering and wear.
“Inherent vice threatens the integrity of a building,” the report said, “and has the potential to destroy the economic basis of its use.”
At the same time, in the other position paper, “East Midtown: A Bold Vision for the Future” (PDF), the Municipal Art Society of New York said that in the area to be rezoned, only 32 of 587 buildings were now landmarks, and that 17 other buildings were prime candidates for landmark status.
“Today’s businesses want talent,” the art society said in its report, “and increasingly, talent gravitates toward neighborhoods that are real places — with walkable streets, unique architecture, great restaurants and other opportunities for socializing and amusement.”
“Older office buildings provide affordable, flexible space and close proximity to other businesses,” the report continued, later adding: “The number and mix of business types are important for the economic health of the neighborhood. Yet the city’s plan — with its emphasis on the need for large, column-free Class A floor-plates — contradicts these facts.”
An east Midtown task force created by Community Boards 4, 5 and 6 is to meet Thursday to receive an update from the planning agency on the status of the rezoning proposal.
The Real Estate Board report dismissed each of them. For its analysis of the Yale Club, 50 Vanderbilt Avenue, the report borrowed the words of Christopher Gray, in The New York Times, who likened the building to a filing cabinet.
The design of the Pershing Square Building, 125 Park Avenue, “was old-fashioned even before it was finished,” the report said. About 250 Park Avenue, also known as the Postum Building, it said, “This is the last of the uninspired group of World War I vintage buildings that missed the coming poetry of height.”
Three towers on “Hotel Alley” were also disparaged in the report. It said the New York Marriott East Side, 525 Lexington Avenue, had experienced “a cascade of facade repairs affecting the unity and integrity of the exterior”; that the Lexington, 511 Lexington Avenue, suffered from extensive weather damage and inflexible floor layouts; and that the InterContinental New York Barclay, 111 East 48th Street, was “the most conservative of the hotels” along Lexington Avenue.
Official landmarks in the area already include the train terminal itself; the former New York Central Building to the north; St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, the Racquet Club, Lever House and the Seagram Building on Park Avenue; and the Chrysler Building, the Chanin Building and the former Socony-Mobil Building, at East 42nd Street and Lexington Avenue.