Paul Gunther writes on Architizer.
Grand Central Terminal. Image via The Daily Beast.
Just days ago, New York Senator Chuck Schumer characterized preservationists as “those people [who] would see the city die a slow death.” With an eye on the shifts under way in New York politics, it is time to put to rest this false dichotomy between landmark preservation and economic progress. The Forum for Urban Design recently published an amalgam of alternative public policy ideas entitled "Next New York" (a handy must-read for any civic-minded design professional or associated gadfly). One of the included essays calls for the elimination of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, placing its duties under the umbrella of the City Planning Commission. This argument is based on the idea that the City Planning Commission makes objective, politics-free decisions, while the decision-making process of the Landmarks Planning Commission is "opaque" and "capricious." The essay cautions against "landmarking" away the economic vitality of New York City."
The Landmarks Preservation Commission has recently given permission to SHoP Architects to build a 1,350-foot residential tower at 107 West 57th Street in Manhattan.
In light of these criticisms, it is necessary to check the facts. For better or worse, the tension between Planning and Landmarks has evolved as the best defense against the huge scale developments that seem most often to replace rather than complement. Change is, and always will be, an aspect of any vibrant and healthy city, but today that reality seems to translate directly to vast height and increased density; until “new” can include greater contextual deference, this tension will—and should—endure. A healthy city is not a monoculture. Preservation, development, and prosperity have always been natural bedfellows: without the fabled landscapes of Central Park and the Upper East and West Sides, one could not sell $100 million apartments along 57th Street. Even in the absence of design excellence, the property can rely on views, proximity and a historic address. “Landmarking” raises the worth of surrounding areas exponentially—the numbers don’t lie. It's ironic that those who sought to destroy Grand Central Terminal 40 years ago, calling its preservation an impediment to progress, are being quoted anew, when in fact the preservation of Grand Central may be the foremost force behind the push for increased density.
Philip Johnson, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Bess Myerson, and former Mayor Ed Koch on Jan. 30, 1975 as they leave New York's Grand Central after holding a news conference for the "Committee to Save Grand Central Station."
Image via Municipal Art Society.
Additionally, landmarks rank as the top driver of what is by far the biggest growth engine in New York: tourism. According to Crain’s New York, in the last decade, the tourism sector has expanded by 41.5%, outpacing all other categories and “more than compensating for job losses elsewhere including manufacturing.” These jobs require a wide variety of skills, making them a perfect match for modern urban demographics. Plus, positive perceptions of a travel destination can mean an increase in design and construction opportunities—in just the last 5 years, hotel space in New York City increased by 23.7%. (Even as hotel room inventory increased, rooms stayed full—in May of 2013, 91.9% of NYC hotel rooms were in use.)
The High Line, a new tourist attraction, and the adjacent Standard Hotel.
What visitors seek, above all, are landmarks. Of the top 10 New York City tourist destinations, for example, nine are landmarks; tourists come for the city that is, its image bright in the collective imagination. Any who see preservation as a threat to the city's momentum should take a cold hard look at the economic facts. Some may describe such reliance on the past as doomed to decline, but it is undeniable that the endurance of beloved landmarks leads directly to economic well-being. If the dollars and jobs generated by tourism are judged as inferior to those generated by new construction, then New York risks becoming a Shanghai wannabe, a hub of 9-to-5 banality. The Chinese are now reconsidering the abnegation of their cultural past; New York must never follow suit. Preservation does not obviate construction or development; a mere five percent of the five boroughs’ real estate falls under Landmarks' protection. That translates into a minute 27,000 properties, including historic districts. While the incoming mayor and his senior staff should reform the designation and enforcement processes of the Landmarks Preservation Commission by increasing transparency, fairness, client ease, and efficiency, the robust preservation movement of New York City must continue for the sake of prosperity, strong communities, and regional identity—an identity visitors pay to experience.
Within a few years the Wyoming, the Ontiora and other apartment houses also rose on Seventh, and ultimately the stone-dealer Thomas Osborne decided to try his hand at this new type of multiple dwelling. His 1885 Osborne, a veritable brownstone quarry of 14 floors at the northwest corner of 57th, was one of the biggest of the crop.
The seed of innovation does not always find fertile ground, and The Real Estate Record and Guide saw “nothing architecturally interesting” about Osborne’s effort. A further slap in the face came when Osborne lost his vertical advertisement through foreclosure. However, it was the first of several apartment-house place markers on this block of 57th Street, including the Rodin Studios, on the southwest corner of Seventh, as well as others nearby, like the Alwyn Court at 58th Street.
A second thread of development arrived in 1892, when the American Fine Arts Society built 215 West 57th, the structure now known as the Art Students League. The society was a consortium of art organizations that banded together in 1889, and in moving to this block extended a line of ateliers on West 57th Street, like the Rembrandt and Sherwood Studios, and also Carnegie Hall, begun at Seventh and 57th in 1889.
A relation of the society’s was the lacy Gothic American Society of Civil Engineers, at 220 West 57th Street, built in 1897 and occupied for years by Lee’s Art Shop, which has preserved many of the interior details.
The final part of the transformation was the northward movement of the carriage operations of Longacre Square along Broadway. This was first felt in 1902 at midblock, next to the Art Students League, with Frank Gould’s colossal, banklike indoor riding ring, long ago demolished.
Peerless and Demarest, builders of horse-drawn and motorized vehicles, followed, and by 1910 had erected their Gothic-style white terra-cotta factory and showroom — later owned by General Motors — at the southeast corner of Broadway and 57th. At the northeast corner, Fiat took over a four-level store and showroom.
Almost simultaneously the Chicago architect Howard Van Doren Shaw designed a building with an unusual double façade for the L-shaped plot fronting on both Broadway and 57th.
By this time the block had just a few available plots, including one at No. 218 on the south side for which, in 1916, Consolidated Gas had Warren & Wetmore design its three-story limestone showroom. Although a commercial enterprise, the building certainly had a civic grandeur. It was torn down years ago.
In the 1990s the Art Students League declined two offers to build a tall building over its rear parcel. But the offer of $20 million for its air rights from Extell Development was persuasive, and now plans call for the league building to have a skinny pencil-case tower cantilevered overhead.
The Extell project would not be possible without the commission’s astonishing move of making a landmark of the Broadway frontage of the Shaw building while leaving the 57th Street bay, essentially identical to the one on Broadway, up for grabs. And grabbed it the developer has; the site is now cleared.
We have, then, a New York block, a sort of architectural loom on which three distinct strands coming from three directions were woven into a single fabric — where from now on it appears the only place to go may be straight up.