Thursday, January 25, 2007

Save Our Skyline (SOS)

SAVE OUR SKYLINE…or Kiss It Goodbye

If the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s recent rejection of a 30-story glass tower at 980 Madison Avenue made you think the war was over, think again. The Commission’s decision was the right one, but we can’t let down our guard just yet. The New-York Historical Society’s latest proposal to put a new face (and a luxury tower to boot) on its venerable Landmark, on Central Park West, is yet another sign that the fight must go on.

Take a stand against the exploitation of our city’s Landmarks and Historic Districts as “development opportunities”. Here are two ways to help:

--> Lend your name in support of “Save Our Skyline (SOS)”: Individuals, organizations, boards, etc.—all are welcome! Please contact LANDMARK WEST!:, 212-496-8110. The growing list of supporters includes NYS Senator Thomas K. Duane, NYS Assemblyman Richard N. Gottfried, the Historic Districts Council, representatives of historic blocks all along Central Park West, and advocates in neighborhoods throughout the city. For more information on SOS, click here. (Additional materials, plus the support list, will be available shortly at

--> Mark your calendars and pack the room on Wednesday, January 31, 7:00 PM

Louise Mirrer, President of the New-York Historical Society, will give a presentation on “future plans for the institution.” The location is the Fourth Universalist Society, 160 Central Park West at 76 Street.

As reported in the New York Times in November 2006, the New-York Historical Society plans to 1) redesign the Central Park West fa├žade of its Landmark building between West 76th and 77th Streets; 2) build a 280-foot glass apartment tower cantilevered over the Landmark; 3) construct an auditorium annex on the West 76th Street residential block; and 4) add a large penthouse directly on top of the Landmark. The New-York Historical Society is one of our city’s few “thrice-landmarked” buildings—it is an Individual Landmark, part of the West 76th Street Historic District and the Upper West Side/Central Park West Historic District. Eventually (sooner rather than later), the project will have to be presented to the Landmarks Commission for review.

Please make every effort to attend on the 31st! Speak up! Ask questions! Will Louise Mirrer present specific, comprehensive architectural plans for the Society’s Landmark site? Or will she merely offer bland platitudes about “creating opportunities for growth” and “seeking dialogue with the community”—while the transformation of one of New York’s most important Landmarks gets shaped behind closed doors? We know that a Request for Proposals was issued in fall 2006 to developers for the Tower portion, with responses due back on December 15. These are preliminary steps towards a full-blown construction project. The barn door is open, and the horse is getting ready to run…

The Historical Society is just one of many developers/institutions keen to test the limits of the Landmarks Preservation Commission's regulatory policy. If this domino falls, the rest are sure to follow.

Sign on to SOS today!, 212-496-8110

Monday, January 8, 2007

Preserving Manhattan Valley


Mark your calendars for Wednesday, January 24, at 7:00 PM, when Community Board 7 will hold a community meeting on the potential designation of a Manhattan Valley Historic District (in the vicinity of 104th to 106th Street along Manhattan Avenue). The meeting will take place at the Jewish Home & Hospital, 120 West 106th Street (between Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues).

Very few buildings above West 96th Street have been protected through landmark designation - yet. For over two decades, LANDMARK WEST! has advocated for a historic district that would include the lovely Queen-Anne-style rowhouses lining Manhattan Avenue between 104th and 106th Streets (see Christopher Gray's New York Times "Streetscapes" column, praising the blocks' quiet, picturesque qualities, below). CB 7's meeting is an important opportunity to make sure that the Landmarks Preservation Commission recognizes the level of public support for protecting this special part of the Upper West Side. Your presence and input on the 24th is absolutely essential! Bring your family, your neighbors, your friends. Be vocal, or simply let your presence speak for itself. It's YOUR community at stake. Will it be preserved for future generations to experience and enjoy, or will it be targeted as yet another development opportunity? YOU can help decide.


New York Times
November 28, 1999

Streetscapes/Manhattan Avenue Between 104th and 106th Streets; 1880's Brick Row Houses With a Bostonian Air


THE picturesque pocket of Victorian row houses on Manhattan Avenue from 104th to 106th Streets, which date from the time the thoroughfare got its name, has a calm Bostonian air that makes it seem a bit removed from city life.

Manhattan Avenue was not on the original street plan for New York City, but by 1868 it was mapped -- as New Avenue -- running north from 100th Street between what are now Central Park West and Columbus Avenue. This was well before any real development in the area, but in the mid-1880's sales activity picked up, and the thoroughfare received its current name in 1884. High land prices discouraged row house building on Central Park West, although in 1884 the New York Cancer Hospital -- now abandoned -- started its giant rounded building on Central Park West from 105th to 106th Streets.

The first building activity on Manhattan Avenue occurred in 1885, when Frederick Seitz put up the row houses on the west side of the street from 105th to 106th, designed by Joseph M. Dunn. The next year the developer John Brown built up the east side of the same block with houses designed by C. P. H. Gilbert, and in 1889 Joseph Turner had the architect Edward Angell design the houses on the west side of Manhattan Avenue from 104th to 105th.

Although other developers were still putting up traditional high-stoop brownstones elsewhere in Manhattan, all these buildings were brick, with stone and terra cotta trim and lower stoops; they were only three stories tall, costing between $8,000 and $12,000 to build. The houses designed by Gilbert, who later did Fifth Avenue mansions like what is now the original wing of the Jewish Museum at 92nd Street, are close to the Queen Anne style, with sunburst motifs in the gables, wavy linear ornament on the cornice, and multilight windows with stained glass.

Those by Dunn are a little wilder, with widely varying arches and gables. The critic Montgomery Schuyler coined the phrase ''reign of terror'' style to describe them because of their startling and alarming appearance. The Angell houses are neo-Romanesque and more sophisticated, although still quite varied. All have unusual ornament -- terra cotta panels with
rivet-head figuring, sunburst ironwork and subtly varying brickwork.

The early occupants were modestly successful, like George B. Sharp, a stable owner, at 122 Manhattan Avenue; Albert H. Kohn, a jeweler, at 132; and Paris Fletcher, an electrician, at 138.

Sometime in the 1910's the family of Charles Gruppe moved into 138 Manhattan Avenue; a landscape painter, Gruppe lived there with his wife and three sons, Paul, a cellist, Karl, a sculptor, and Emile, a painter. At the same time more and more houses were renting out rooms -- George C. Hammer, a sea captain, was a roomer at 119 Manhattan Avenue.

By then, the houses on Manhattan Avenue were holdouts in a sea of tenements and apartment buildings, their status reinforced when the giant Frederick Douglass housing project went up at the southwest corner of 104th Street and Manhattan Avenue in the 1950's.

Daniel and Elsie Matos are among the senior residents of the row-house stretch of Manhattan Avenue -- they moved into the top floor of 122 Manhattan Avenue in 1959. ''We were living on East 117th Street and came over here for something different,'' Mrs. Matos said. Mr. Matos, a retired cabdriver, said that ''when we moved in this was a drug dealer's neighborhood.''

His building has spongy linoleum-covered stairs, ancient paint and battered front doors, but it also has its original encaustic tile vestibule floor and original woodwork. He said that his monthly rent was between $200 and $300 and he estimated that the rent for each full-floor apartment in the building was about the same. ''It's great -- you go to bed at night and you don't hear a fly in here,'' he said.

Ella S. McDonald bought the building at 138 Manhattan Avenue in 1972. She said that Karl Gruppe would not sell unless she and her husband promised not to convert the building into a rooming house. ''I said, 'What's a rooming house?' and he let us buy it,'' she recalled. ''The block was unbelievably bad. My family thought I had lost my mind -- a couple of houses were boarded up, street people all over the place, bongos 24 hours a day. But five or six of us families got together, and we decided we were not going to let the drug people push us out.''

ELIZABETH KELLNER said that she and her husband, David, both lawyers, bought their house, at 132 Manhattan Avenue, in 1976 for $25,000. She said they stripped all the woodwork and installed period fixtures. The fireplaces on the lower floors are heavily worked oak pieces, with figured tiles in earth tones, but the top-floor fireplaces are plain slate, with geometric incised lines, spare and abstract.

Their living room -- perhaps 12 by 16 feet -- is small and cozy, but big enough for a baby grand, a small sofa and a large television. Like the other three-story Manhattan Avenue houses, theirs is much more livable than the standard dark Manhattan row house, usually built very deep and four or five stories high.

In December 1986 Mr. Kellner used an old statute, the Bawdy House Law, to evict squatting drug dealers who had taken over the building at 124 Manhattan Avenue. Since then, neighbors agree, the neighborhood has continued to improve. Mrs. Kellner said that although the available shopping is not what she would prefer, ''I really like the fact that the neighborhood is racially, ethnically and economically integrated.'' They have taken down the board fences separating their backyard from their neighbors'.

All this has taken place in the shadow of the old New York Cancer Hospital, later a nursing home, designated a landmark in 1976 and vacant since. There have been various plans for redevelopment, but the building remains a majestic wreck. Some call it a blight, but it is also a peaceful interlude in the area, a sort of architectural preserve.

Mrs. McDonald said she likes it on Manhattan Avenue. ''It's a neighborhood,'' she said. ''When my brother came by to come in with a key, people asked him who he was -- my brother was very impressed. Why would I move from here?''

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Neighbors Question the Historical Society's Plans to Expand

The New York Times
December 30, 2006


Peter M. Wright was pacing from eighth-floor window to window, pointing to the spot where a proposed 23-story luxury tower of the New-York Historical Society could block a swath of his Central Park West sky. Then he indicated the place where a new annex building would eclipse his view of a row of charming limestone town houses.

''I'm concerned -- and everyone in this building is concerned -- about restricted views,'' said Mr. Wright, 64, a tenant of 6 West 77th Street, the residence most likely to be affected.

''But this can't be all about 'not in my backyard,' '' Mr. Wright said. ''It has to be about a project that is a monument to miscalculation.''

That project is the planned $20 million renovation of the society, to be followed not only by the construction of a fifth floor atop its roof but also a more costly glass apartment tower behind the society's museum and library at 170 Central Park West, between 76th and 77th Streets.

This month, the society received bids for the plan from eight developers. The society has approached the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which must approve changes to the building's neo-Classical exterior.

The society sees the proposal not as a miscalculation but rather as a necessity. ''We hope the community sees our institution as a major amenity and asset, but we do have a need to grow,'' said Louise Mirrer, the society's president. The expansion, she said, would provide space for reorganized galleries and collections and help the institution meet a growing public role and contribute to its solvency. ''We hope to do a responsible development.''

But since it was announced last month, the proposal has been met with a wide coalition of opponents, as well as concern from city officials not only about the plan's aesthetics but also about the millions of dollars of taxpayers' money in previous improvements that could be demolished.

For decades, community opposition has hindered expansion plans. Now, neighbors and preservationists, bloodied from recent battles against developers, are rallying again. ''The winds of war are stirring, and this is the calm before the storm,'' said Joseph Bolanos, president of the West 76th Street Park Block Association, who claims to have 100 members living between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue.

In the first institutional opposition, the 13-member public policy committee of the New York Landmarks Conservancy earlier this month rejected the society's initial plan to renovate the 1908 building, said Peg Breen, the independent group's president.

Referring to renderings that depicted a larger entrance on Central Park West and some larger windows, Ms. Breen said that enlarging the entrance and the windows ''would amount to a wholesale removal of much original building material,'' adding, ''They are a history museum, and the building is part of their history.''

While the conservancy cannot veto construction, its recommendations have sometimes carried weight with the Landmarks Commission and government and private groups that provide financing.

Dr. Mirrer said she was concerned that the current entrance did not conform to fire-exit requirements and that it was ''important to modify the building in ways that signify we are open and welcoming.'' The society's architects are changing the design to respond to the conservancy's feedback.

Some preservationists like Ms. Breen see the tower as a symbol of other struggling West Side nonprofit organizations. ''Developers are going door to door to churches to see if they can buy them,'' she said.

Mr. Bolanos of the block association said the tower ''would ruin the neighborhood,'' and added: ''Our membership is concerned about the changing character of the West Side. People feel they are being steamrollered.''

He referred to struggles like those over the nearby Dakota Stable on Amsterdam Avenue at 77th Street, the Museum of Arts and Design at 2 Columbus Circle and the Congregation Shearith Israel at 70th Street near Central Park West.

Kate Wood, the executive director of Landmark West, a 21-year-old Upper West Side group, said: ''We've been getting a lot of e-mails and calls saying what can we do? People are on high alert.''

At 6-16 West 77th Street, ''people are concerned, but not hysterical,'' said Ernie von Simson, the president of the co-op's seven-member board. ''There is so much we don't know. We met with Dr. Mirrer, and we want to meet again.''

Councilwoman Gale A. Brewer, who represents the neighborhood, already opposes one aspect of the society's plan. ''For historic reasons, a glass tower is wrong,'' she said, adding: ''This is going to be a long process. I don't know if they can get it done.''

Dr. Mirrer said, ''The glass tower idea was a place holder,'' adding, ''It's not determined what the tower will look like because the developers will choose the architect with us.''

Nevertheless, Mr. Bolanos said, ''our game plan is to protest everything that happens.'' He added: ''We're ready to go full blast. Our people are very angry.''

The society's plans may face restrictions imposed by the city and the state, which have contributed more than $25 million for improvements inside the building since the early 1990s, when the neglected, and nearly bankrupt, society closed its doors for two years.

In its initial presentations, the society said it was considering moving its auditorium to the five-story annex and using the space for an orientation center. It planned to reconfigure gallery floors and ceilings, to replace the current elevator with two new ones and adorn a gallery ceiling with art by Keith Haring.

''A substantial amount of money was spent in the auditorium and in a renovation of the elevator and in the first-floor galleries for new ceilings and other improvements,'' said Ed Norris, the society's chief operating officer from 1994 to 2002. ''And new floors were put in.''

The acceptance of city money required the society to sign agreements to protect the construction for the life of the bonds that paid for the improvements, said Kate D. Levin, the city's cultural affairs commissioner. ''If it is not a necessary change, and it vitiates a taxpayer investment, we're not going to do it,'' the commissioner said, adding that the society had submitted only preliminary plans. ''We are sure they will be cooperative in protecting city assets.''

Dr. Mirrer said, ''We will be absolutely scrupulous in following the agreements,'' adding, ''We would not do anything illegal.''

Experts disagree about possible financial return from a tower. Daniel F. Sciannameo, the president of Albert Valuation Group New York, an appraiser and real estate consultant, estimated that the society could get ''$10 million to $20 million,'' including the construction of its annex for free.

Development rights could go as high as $600 or $700 a square foot, he said, because ''how many times do you get a chance to build on Central Park West?''

But Robert I. Shapiro, the president of City Center Real Estate, a consulting company specializing in development rights, said, ''A lot of developers would approach it with a great deal of caution,'' adding that the society ''would be lucky if it were a wash,'' where the developer did not profit enough to give a bonus to the society.

The possibility of high construction cost was a negative, he said, as well as delays resulting from the landmark and community-consultation process.

Dr. Mirrer said, ''We have no dollar threshold or expectation, but any money that we raise in any way would be very welcome.''

The neighborhood is not uniformly opposed. ''At present, the street is less safe than it might be,'' said David Berkowitz, the owner of a West 76th Street town house next to the society's empty lot at 7-13 West 76th Street, ''and that's one reason why I might be supportive of a luxury residential building developed on that site.''

But other residents, like Mr. Bolanos, are raising objections to construction. He points to evidence of a 20-foot-deep stream that he says would threaten the basement of the annex, with its three floors of underground library storage. Dr. Mirrer responded that test borings had been taken ''and construction seems to be feasible.''

Still others are challenging the society's viability. Mr. Wright, the co-op tenant, who is co-chairman of the Park West 77th Street Block Association, said the society ''is extremely fragile financially, and there is no way they are going to realize from the tower scheme the money they will need to ensure their future. Why go through all the agita if the institution is going down?''
He mentioned the society's budget of $17 million against $4 million in revenues from admissions and other sources; Dr. Mirrer had to raise $13 million this year. Even a developer windfall ''would not solve the society's financial problems for long,'' Mr. Wright said.

Dr. Mirrer countered that the society had balanced its budget for the last 10 years. ''Our future is very rosy, and our very strong board has the financial wherewithal and an intellectual commitment to history,'' she said.