Today it took the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) only an hour to rebuke some of the city’s most powerful real estate interests by designating 11 new landmarks in Midtown East.
After hearing public testimony on the Ambassador Grill & Lounge and Hotel Lobby, the commission decided that the Pershing Square Building and the Graybar Building, as well as the Shelton Hotel Building, the Yale Club of New York City, and seven smaller structures, all between East 39th to East 57th streets, from Fifth to Second avenues, were worthy of landmark status.
As the neighborhood is rezoned to allow developers to build more Class A office space, preservationists are concerned that increased height and density allowances will threaten the district’s historic architecture. To address the neighborhood’s challenges in the face of impending change, in 2014 Mayor Bill de Blasio created East Midtown Steering Committee, a coalition of city agencies, reals estate interests, and nonprofits tasked with creating guidelines to shape growth. The LPC was asked to collaborate with the Department of City Planning (DCP) to make sure important historic items were calendared before DCP moved ahead with the rezoning.
Even as LPC commissioners praised the partnership between their agency and DCP as a “model” of future collaboration, groups with a financial stake in Midtown East especially opposed landmarking buildings like the Pershing Square and Graybar, which harbor key subway and commuter rail access points.
Although city officials who represent the district supported the landmarking of the Pershing Square Building, the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY), Grand Central Partnership, the Riders Alliance, and architect Vishaan Chakrabarti, the founder of Practice for Architecture and Urbanism (PAU), argued in July that landmark status would make it harder to upgrade the infrastructure underneath, a potential damper on the neighborhood’s projected growth.
The Graybar Building faced a similar geography of public opinion. Despite support from the Municipal Arts Society (MAS), Landmarks Conservancy, and city officials who represent the district, the landmarking was opposed by the owners, SL Green.
In today’s meeting, the LPC refuted the real estate and transportation groups’ arguments with an appeal to history. The Pershing Square Building especially, said Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan, was developed concurrently with crucial infrastructure. “Mass transit is part of this building. The commission recognizes infrastructure improvements will take place, and historic buildings can adapt to that.”
“The city is undergoing radical transformation,” said commissioner Adi Shamir Baron. Highlighting the massive construction site that will soon be One Vanderbilt, she added that even as demolitions represent the health and growth of the city, “the designation of these buildings, individually but especially in aggregate, these 11 go some way towards filling that gaping hole.”