Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s push to increase development in east Midtown would threaten some of the very buildings that give the neighborhood its character, preservation groups and community boards warn.
How the city looks and feels — and why it got that way.
The buildings include the Barclay Hotel, the Yale Club, Brooks Brothers flagship store and the Graybar Building, which many New Yorkers may think — incorrectly — are protected as landmarks already.
The proposal is intended to provide a legacy of the Bloomberg administration by ensuring that the area around Grand Central Terminal stays on a competitive footing with business centers worldwide. It would increase the maximum allowable building density by 60 percent for some large sites near the terminal. Potential density would be increased 44 percent along an 11-block stretch of Park Avenue. Lesser increases would take effect elsewhere in the area between East 39th and East 57th Streets and between Fifth and Second Avenues, although most of the easternmost residential blocks would not be affected.
Such increases in density — meaning higher potential profits for landlords down the road — would give builders an incentive to spend the time and money needed to assemble large development parcels and then empty and demolish the buildings on them. The New York City Planning Department has identified projected and potential development sites in the area (on page 26 of this PDF).
In turn, the Municipal Art Society and the New York Landmarks Conservancy pinpointed more than a dozen buildings over which the shadow of demolition would most likely fall.
“What one would not want to have happen is for the district to become solely a place about Class A office space,” said Vin Cipolla, president of the Municipal Art Society. “Great neighborhoods are not monocultures.”
It is too early to break out the violin, hard hat and safety goggles. The rezoning proposal is not yet under formal review and will not take effect immediately even if it is adopted next year. By then, a number of buildings identified as vulnerable by preservationists may well have been designated official landmarks.
Among these are the Yale Club, 50 Vanderbilt Avenue; the InterContinental New York Barclay (originally the Barclay Hotel), 111 East 48th Street; the New York Marriott East Side (originally the Shelton), 525 Lexington Avenue; the Graybar Building, 420 Lexington Avenue; the Postum Building, 250 Park Avenue; and the Pershing Square Building, 125 Park Avenue.
These buildings were constructed in the 1910s and 1920s, after the opening of Grand Central Terminal transformed the character of Midtown. Collectively, they speak of the district’s history as a neighborhood of large corporations and small businesses, of hotels, men’s clubs and men’s clothing stores.
The private, 119-year-old Municipal Art Society, which has not figured as prominently in local landmark battles in recent years as it once did, now seems to have returned to the civic fray with a list of 17 buildings it contends warrant consideration for landmark status, including all six noted above.
“We are trying to make the city understand how important it is that the past is incorporated into this vision of a soaring future — and not just remnant pieces of the past,” said Ronda Wist, the vice president of the society for preservation and government relations. “Vibrancy, diversity and character are what we’re aiming to see preserved.”
In its East Midtown Study, the City Planning Department identified aging office buildings with low ceilings as inhibiting the district in its potential for attracting and keeping jobs.
An official of the conservancy, Alex Herrera, whose 16-building preservation list includes many that are also on the Municipal Art Society’s list, said, “The conservancy believes that these structures are not obsolete, low-ceilinged disposable construction, but rather represent some of the best architecture in the area, designed by distinguished architects.”
Preservationists are not the only ones concerned by the implications of the mayor’s rezoning proposal. In a collective statement of principles, Community Boards 4, 5 and 6 raised the question of what would happen to the pre-eminence of other landmarks if high-density skyscrapers were to start sprouting around Grand Central Terminal. “Does this proposal consider the effect on our skyline?” the boards asked. “Does the Chrysler or Empire State Building deserve any special protections?”
Both the Planning Department and the landmarks agency said they were conscious of the historical value of buildings in east Midtown. The landmarks commission is studying the eligibility of many of these structures for designation.
“The city recognizes that a significant part of east Midtown’s success and cachet comes from the remarkable collection of historic and iconic buildings that are found here,” said Rachaele Raynoff, a spokeswoman for Amanda M. Burden, the director of city planning and chairwoman of the City Planning Commission. “Part of east Midtown’s attraction is its mix of old and new. Our goal is to complement this existing character with a handful of new modern office buildings over the course of 20 years that may eventually become ‘landmarks’ in their own right.”