Nouvel Gets His Air Rights

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Courtesy Ateliers Jean Nouvel

Though Jean Nouvel will not receive his Pritzker until June 2, he can get a big head start on the celebrations, knowing that his Tour de Verre, né the MoMA Tower, received the necessary approval from the Landmarks Preservation Commission today for a transfer of air rights from two landmarks down the block, the University Club and St. Thomas Church. The project’s neighbors criticized it on a number of fronts at a hearing last month, and while some commissioners acknowledged those issues, the regulatory authority had little jurisdiction to tamper with Nouvel’s design.

The land on which the tower will rise is not part of a historic district, so the commission has no authority over what gets built there. But because the developer, Hines, is seeking a transfer of air rights from two nearby landmarks to achieve its monumental 74 stories, the commission must determine two things in a report to the City Planning Commission, which will address urban planning issues during the standard land-use review process.

First, the air rights transfer must warrant a distinct preservation purpose, including the creation of a maintenance trust fund. And second, the new building must relate harmoniously to the landmarks. The commission voted unanimously in favor of the transfer of 275,000 square feet from the church and 136,000 square feet from the club, though one modification was made to the preservation plans of the latter.

Mark Silberman, counsel to the commission, opened today’s discussion of the project by affirming the narrow jurisdiction of the commission on this project and cautioned against taking some of the community’s urbanistic concerns into consideration when they had no bearing on issues of preservation. He also countered one of the critics’ biggest gripes about the transfer: the well-heeled organizations involved in the sale don’t need special treatment because their landmarks are already well tended.

“Because a building is in good shape, it should not be ineligible,” Silberman said. “All that is required is a cyclical maintenance plan. And I would just like to point out that it would make for strange public policy to penalize owners who have managed to keep their buildings in good shape and have wanted to save them, and only allow these special permits to be available to people who have not kept their buildings in good shape.”

The commissioners seemed to agree with this logic, and chair Robert Tierney even said so before he cast his vote. The only substantive issue came from Commissioner Stephen Byrns, who said he had spent a great deal of time studying the work of McKim, Mead & White, the firm behind the University Club.

Byrns felt that a balustrade once fronting on Fifth Avenue that had been lost when the street was widened would go a long way to restoring its historic character if replaced. “That balustrade would warm the heart of Charles McKim,” Byrns said. All eight of his peers agreed, and the resolution was amended to include the balustrade as part of the preservation effort at the club.

Commissioner Pablo Vengoechea expressed a certain shared discontent that the commission did not have more influence on Nouvel’s tower. “I agree that there is no real impact from the tower on the landmarks,” he said. “But I would hope, however, that City Planning engages the urbanistic questions that have been raised in the testimony.”

The reaction, both from the development team and the audience, was subdued, but many residents vented their anger at the commission afterwards. “The decision was a gross misjustice,” said Charles Steinberg, a resident of 54th Street across from the Museum. “They talk about preservation while they destroy a very valuable, and valued, neighborhood.”

“This is not over,” Veronika Conant, president of the 54th-55th Street Block Association, declared as she left the commission.

In other news from the commission, a landmark district was considered for West Chelsea, an extension of Noho district was passed (more on those shortly), and Winka Dubbeldam of Archi-Tectonics was on hand to present plans for a far-out, rear-yard addition to a townhouse on West 24th Street. She said the sloping, sinuous facade will be home to a fashion-designer friend and fabricated in three massive pieces by an automotive design shop.

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