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03.14.2007
LPC Delays Vote on Tower
Foster to redesign following public hearing

At a January 16 public hearing, the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) urged Foster + Partners to modify the designs for the proposed addition to 980 Madison Avenue in order to win approval for the project. The firm presented a scheme for a 30-story glass tower to stand atop a five-floor mixed-use building, originally known as the Parke-Bernet Galleries, a gallery and art auction building completed in 1950. The idea of planting a modern tower on top of a historic building echoes Foster’s recently completed Hearst headquarters.

The project’s developer, Aby Rosen’s RFR Holdings, and Foster plan to modify the design and present to the LPC yet again. Cheri Fein, spokesperson for Rosen and Foster, stated that the twomenwere“pleased that a vote was not taken and that there is now the opportunity to redesign.” A followup presentation to the LPC has not yet been scheduled.

The January hearing was a continuation of the public hearing held on October 24, 2006, where a large public contingency voiced both opposition and support for the design. Among the opponents was the Municipal Arts Society, which testified that the design of the addition was inappropriate in terms of “height, massing, design, and materials in relationship to the Parke-Bernet Building and the historic district.”

LPC chair Robert Tierney called the January 16 hearing “a good exchange of views and ideas.” Many comments centered on the height of the tower, which LPC vice chairperson Pablo E. Vengoechea deemed overwhelming. Others took issue with the materials and the way the glass tower would contrast with nearby buildings. One member of the commission, architect Jan Hird Pokorny, supported the project.

The second hearing again drew many Upper East Side residents who have been vocal about their opposition to the proposal, including writer Tom Wolfe. No limit was set for what height the committee would deem appropriate, although it is clear that the majority of the LPC board and neighbors think that 30 stories is too tall. Rosen said in a statement,” We appreciate the thoughtfully considered comments at the LPC meeting, and have returned to the drawing board to come up with a design that responds to these comments yet remains viable.” For approval, the design must win six of the 11 LPC member votes.

A. Stewart Walker and Alfred Easton Poor designed the 980 Madison building with a simple limestone facade. Foster’s proposal includes restoration, which Tierney praised as “an impressive return to the building’s historical origins.” The plan would have refurbished the building, including removing more than 50 windows cut into the building over time, removing the fifth floor added in 1957, reintroducing the original roof garden, and adding 25,000 square feet of public gallery space.

When asked if he felt thatmodernconstruction could fit in with the historic character of the Upper East Side, Tierney pointed out, “Renzo Piano’s expansion of the Whitney was quite striking, modern, and contemporary, and was approved.” Despite winning the LPC’s approval, however, the Piano project was ultimately scrapped, after the Whitney decided to build an expansion in the Meatpacking District rather than engage in a prolonged battle with neighbors.

Sarah Cox