AN Investigates

Landmarks cites nonexistent permits for iconic Citicorp Center plaza

East News Preservation
Landmarks cites nonexistent permits for iconic Citicorp plaza. Pictured here: Citicorp Center in 1978. St. Peter's, left, faces the sunken plaza along Lexington Avenue. (Norman McGrath)
Landmarks cites nonexistent permits for iconic Citicorp plaza. Pictured here: Citicorp Center in 1978. St. Peter's, left, faces the sunken plaza along Lexington Avenue. (Norman McGrath)

Last month the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) sidestepped a crucial discussion of a developer’s plans to overhaul a plaza at the Citicorp Center (now 601 Lexington Avenue), citing permits that were, in fact, never issued (Update 5/8/17: see note at bottom).

The opaque and irregular approvals process for these renovations—detailed below—deprived the public of the opportunity to weigh in on highly visible changes to the landmarked Citicorp Center, one New York’s most essential late modern buildings.

Those changes especially impact a plaza and fountain by Sasaki Associates, one of the firm’s only surviving works in New York.

In March The Architect’s Newspaper reported on the planned changes to the building, one of the city’s newest landmarks. The 59-story tower, designed by Hugh A. Stubbins & Associates in 1977, commands a busy corner in East Midtown, Manhattan. The landmark designation includes three interrelated structures—a 59-story, 915-foot-tall office tower on the western portion of the site, a six-story mixed-use structure nestled into the main tower, and St. Peter’s Lutheran Church of Manhattan—all connected by a series of indoor and outdoor spaces that are privately owned but open to the public.

At the Midtown East building, though, proposed changes to those spaces—known to city planners as POPS—have attracted attention. 

The LPC put the Citicorp Center on its calendar for landmark consideration in May 2016, and, after one hearing on September 13, the commission declared 601 Lexington Avenue—three buildings and the POPS—a New York City landmark in December 2016.

Typically, calendaring puts all renovations on hold—but not this time.

In July of that year, just two months after calendering, the owner, Boston Properties, filed plans with the DOB for a $46.8 million renovation that included changes to the POPS and the six-story office-retail building at the base of the main tower.

Fast forward to a March 21, 2017 hearing to discuss a proposed renovation, designed by Gensler, that included work on the building’s facade. At this hearing, LPC commissioners twice stated that they couldn’t comment on the plaza renovations because they were “already permitted” (5:38:01 and 5:41:40), while LPC Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan said the owner “already got the permits” for the plaza reconstruction. But where are those permits?

The permits the LPC referenced could only been approved by one agency: the Department of Buildings (DOB). For this project, the DOB approves development plans, while the Department of City Planning’s (DCP) City Planning Commission oversees and approves changes to privately owned public spaces. Neither agency can approve major changes to a landmark or potential landmark without LPC approval.

Today, a DOB spokesperson confirmed to AN that the agency rejected Boston Properties’ plans (just this week, in fact) but stated that the owner may file new plans at a later date.

(Courtesy Gensler)

Rendering of the proposed changes to the plaza. (Courtesy Gensler)

With no permits on file, was the LPC referencing approvals from City Planning? At the March 2017 hearing, the commission stated that, because the DCP oversees privately owned public spaces, any changes to the POPS had to be—and were already—approved by that department.

That’s true: At DCP, public review of the project commenced September 14, 2016—a day after the LPC’s September designation hearing—and garnered departmental approval on November 2, 2016, months after the May calendaring and a little over a month before designation. This bizarre dialogue between Landmarks and City Planning left no opportunity for the public to comment on major changes to a landmarked public space.

The LPC was unable to confirm what permits the commission was referring to at the March 2017 hearing, despite repeated requests.

The designation report (PDF) confirms that the DCP has oversight over the POPS, but it incorrectly says Boston Properties received DOB approval to modify the sunken plaza. (The designation report contains an additional error: The Citicorp Center’s calendaring is listed as August 9, 2016 but an LPC press release pegs its calendaring to May 10.)

The DOB confirmed that it had not issued a permit for the renovation of the POPS at the site.

(Audrey Wachs / AN)

The plaza this week. (Audrey Wachs / AN)

With regard to the plaza changes, “I’m not sure what the Landmarks Commission thinks it is doing,” said Michael Hiller, Esq. Hiller is the founding principal of Hiller, PC, a New York City firm that litigates zoning, preservation, and land-use issues.

At press time, the LPC issued the following statement:

The application before the Commission on March 21st was limited to the building’s façade. The applicant represented to the Commission that they had valid DOB permits for the work on the plaza that pre-dated designation and, as a result, that portion of the work was not before the Commission. During the process, the Commissioner’s reference was based on the representation by the applicant. If there were no valid DOB permits for the work on the plaza issued prior to designation, the applicant would be required to obtain an LPC permit prior to the issuance of a DOB permit.

(Audrey Wachs / AN)

(Audrey Wachs / AN)

A site visit this week revealed that there is construction fencing surrounding the perimeter of the plaza, though the stair to the subway through the sunken plaza remains unimpeded. Signs show a Gensler rendering of the revamped plaza and office building, above, but the only permits posted are for work on the 29th floor:

Signs say the work in progress is retail-focused, but the only posted permit is for work on the 29th floor. (Audrey Wachs / AN)

Signs say the work in progress is retail-focused, but the only posted permit is for work on the 29th floor. (Audrey Wachs / AN)

Boston Properties could not be reached for comment on the current status of the renovations or the approvals process.

The changes that DCP approved in Boston Properties’ land use application would add benches and would not reduce the total area of the POPS’s sunken plaza. (Technically, to the DCP, the plaza is an “open air concourse,” an exposed area that sits more than 12 feet below-grade and provides access to the subway. Here, at its lowest, the tiered public space sits 13 feet below grade.) Its 6,000 square feet of tables, chairs, and concrete gave the Citicorp Center a FAR bonus of almost 59,000 square feet. In exchange, the public received six trees, 19 tables, 76 chairs, and a designer fountain, plus retail at the western edge of the concourse. The DCP-approved changes would add two tables, eight chairs, and 153 feet of benches to the count, and a new fountain would replace the Sasaki fountain in “approximately the same location.”

Among other changes, the plans call for a stairway from the concourse to the sidewalk would be widened, and repositioned to improved pedestrian circulation from the subway to the street. The land use review application says the changes would “improve public access, provide better circulation and connectivity, and create a more visible and vibrant Public Spaces [sic].”

This fountain-for-fountain, space-for-space tradeoff is acceptable per City Planning but for preservationists, the thought of losing Sasaki fountain is devastating.

“The Citicorp Center is about public space—that’s what makes it architecturally interesting and designation-worthy,” said preservation activist Theodore Gruenwald. “We are seeing all of these changes done very much behind the scenes, without public oversight.”

Designed by Sasaki Associates principal emeritus Stuart Dawson, the Citicorp Center’s plaza and fountain is just one of the city’s 333 POPS, the essential New York City micro-spaces that make public places out of office building plazas, atria, and concourses. Introduced as a development incentive in the 1960s, POPS let developers build taller than zoning allowed in exchange for open space.

Recently, though, the public-ness of these public spaces has come under threat. The election propelled Trump Tower’s inaccessible POPS into the limelight, and the loss of the Water Street arcades last year has further highlighted the vulnerability of POPS, especially those that are more marginal. Though not a POPS, the owners of SOM’s landmarked One Chase Manhattan Plaza tried—and failed—to build three glass pavilions on the building’s plaza, a move that would have segmented the public space and blocked views of a massive Dubuffet sculpture.

Rule-breaking POPS have caught the attention of the law, too. This month the office of the New York City comptroller released the results of a POPS audit (PDF), which found that more than half of the city’s privately owned public spaces did not provide mandated access or amenities (though the POPS at Citicorp Center was in-compliance—at least by this measure).

UPDATE 5/8/17: The DOB initially represented to AN that there were no permits issued for the work on the sunken plaza and Sasaki fountain. On May 5, 2017, the agency informed AN that an ALT–2 permit to remake the plaza was filed on November 18, 2016 and issued on December 2, 2016. The LPC signed off on the permits that same day, four days before Citicorp’s landmarking on December 6 and well after the conclusion of the public comment period. AN plans to update readers on this developing story.

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