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Preservation Palpitations

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Preservation Palpitations

How to preserve and develop sensibly on the West Side July 3, 2015

Upper West Side preservationists, myself included, are in a lather that the brand-new extension of the Riverside-West End Historic District, which includes almost every building along those two Manhattan boulevards from 94th to 108th Streets, will not include, as originally proposed during the five-year debate, 21 buildings on Broadway between 89th and 109th Streets. But my upset is a little different from the normal preservationist’s dislike of development. New buildings, greater density, plus the improved restaurants and shops they foster—bring it on!

After all, most of the buildings included in the new district rose after August Belmont’s Interborough Rapid Transit started operating in 1904, allowing workers a fast subway commute between Broadway and 145th Street and City Hall. The resulting boom in property prices swept away most of the townhouses on West End Avenue and the free-standing, lawn-surrounded mansions on Riverside Drive—some only 15 years old. This history suggests that the Landmarks Preservation Commission does need to make sure that any new development doesn’t destroy any truly distinguished buildings or ruin the brownstone-lined side streets—vernacular architecture at its best and a New York trademark. It also suggests how much New York needs the kind of activist Municipal Art Society that ensured that the post-1904 real-estate boom’s new construction wasn’t hideous.

So for starters, the idea that the Landmarks Preservation Commission omitted Neville and Bagge’s 1909 The Cornwall, at Broadway and 90th Street, from the district is absurd. Of the few surviving Art Nouveau buildings in Manhattan, this surely is the finest. At 12 stories, it also offers a textbook lesson in how to build interesting tall buildings, with its tripartite division, like a classical column. Above a three-story limestone base rise six stories of striking, tomato-red brick, topped by three ornate stories of cream-colored terra cotta pilasters, all culminating in an “extraordinary . . . terra-cotta diadem,” molded to resemble entwined peacock feathers worthy of Vienna in 1900, marvels the 2000 edition of the AIA Guide to New York City. Festooning an already rich confection with even more frosting, the architects added cream-colored terra cotta balconies and window lintels, embossed the top three terra cotta stories with Art Nouveau designs as if squeezed out of a pastry tube, and applied a copper cornice to accent the terra cotta crown even more dramatically.

The Cornwall, at 255 West 90th Street

Also left out of the Historic District are two superb 1911 apartment buildings on the east corners of Broadway and 98th Street, numbers 215 (The Gramont) and 220. Less showy than The Cornwall, they are nevertheless magnificently stately examples of how to make tall buildings grand, with then-novel washable white-glazed brick at 215, lavish terra cotta ornament on both (glazed green at 220), and spectacular copper cornices that self-confidently wed classical decorum to Edwardian opulence. Like The Cornwall, The Gramont is an upscale (for the Upper West Side) co-op and so unlikely to be razed or architecturally vandalized. It doesn’t really need landmark protection. But 220 West 98th Street is a rental building, whose tenants do not post many kind remarks about their landlord on the Internet.

The Gramont (left) and 220 West 98th Street (right)

But what a lot of undistinguished buildings the Commission included in the new District, including the cheerless modern P.S. 75 at 735 West End Avenue. And what a lot of buildings hopelessly disfigured by Local Laws 10 and 11. The laws’ reasonable requirement that building façades be regularly inspected and repaired, so that pieces of masonry or brick won’t fall off and kill passersby, as happened to a Barnard College student in 1979, resulted in tight-fisted landlords simply ripping off the balconies and cornices of their properties, so as to ruin their architectural integrity beyond financially feasible repair. If some developer can figure out a way to replace these buildings with more attractive and more profitable ones that still meet the zoning code and that fit respectfully into their neighborhood’s design context, it’s hard to see the harm.

But—and this is a very big but—any new buildings must not be monstrosities. And in an era when modernist and post-modernist architecture is so prevalent, the former being anything but modern, since it dates back at least 85 years, it’s hard to find agreement on what constitutes a monstrosity. How can there be, when the latest edition of the AIA Guide describes The Cornwall as “normal but nice,” though extraordinary pre-World War I apartment buildings in New York are very far from the norm? For me, the work of today’s so-called starchitects—Norman Foster, Richard Rodgers, Frank Gehry, Christian de Portzamparc—defines the monstrous. You need only go to West 57th Street to judge for yourself. How do you like Lord Foster’s ungainly Hearst Tower, rising clumsily out of the brooding Art Deco base that Joseph Urban was building for Hearst when the Depression cut it short? I myself wish that Urban had got to finish the job. And do you feel, as I do, that the grossly disproportionate height of Portzamparc’s 90-story One57 makes it look flimsy and ready to collapse or topple over?

It’s Gary Barnett’s Extell Development Corporation that built One57, where the grandest apartment reportedly has fetched more than $90 million. But the owner of that apartment will pay no more in real estate taxes than a typical $3 million co-op would pay, thanks to the 421-a tax abatement that Barnett won as an “incentive” to build the gargantuan project.

And that brings us back to the fears of the Upper West Side preservationists about Broadway. For it is Extell that built in 2007 the two tallest buildings by far on that stretch of Broadway, 31 and 37 stories on either side of the avenue between 99th and 100th Streets, overshadowing a neighborhood where the tallest buildings are 12 to 16 stories. And though neither has any architectural merit, the one on the west side of Broadway is my candidate for the ugliest new building in Manhattan, though I admit this is a hotly disputable topic and many other candidates can plausibly claim this title.

The Ariel West at 245 W. 99th Street
The Ariel East at 2628 Broadway

Since no authority can assure that a new Gotham structure will have the urbane suavity of the apartment buildings that Robert A. M. Stern or Peter Pennoyer have recently built on the Upper East Side, or even that Lucien Lagrange built for—believe it or not—Extell Development at 535 West End Avenue, no wonder West Side preservationists would just like nothing to change. In their neighborhood, recent change has too often been for the worse. And the threat is not only architectural. The New York Times reports that the de Blasio administration is considering allowing new buildings on Broadway to be 17 stories high, rather than the post-Extell-zoned 14 stories, if they provide some units of “affordable” housing. So middle-class Upper West Side co-op and condo owners, whose property taxes have more than doubled in the last decade, will in effect be subsidizing not only the Extells of this town but also those who haven’t worked their hearts out to afford apartments in the neighborhood. Even the lockstep liberals up here don’t much like this bargain. But neither will they like the best recipe to provide affordable housing to lower-income New Yorkers: free the police to make marginal neighborhoods safe and quiet, and free the market to let real estate developers build or renovate whatever they can rent.

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