By Carter B. Horsley
This is a story about
one of the best and most active community groups in the city and
its interpretation of how Historic Districts should perform and
the role of the press in covering such controversies.
The New York Times and The New York Observer,
to their credit, both covered hearings on this case before the
city's Landmarks Preservation Commission in February, 2000, at
which Woody Allen, the movie director and a new resident in the
Carnegie Hill neighborhood where the proposed project is located.
Mr. Allen distributed copies of a three-minute video he had made
to argue against what he termed an "egregious mistake."
The Carnegie Hill Neighbors argued that "the vulnerable Citibank
site is on the first of three consecutive Madison Avenue intersections
that comprise the 'Commons,' our designation for the three-block
section that surrounds the intersections of 91st, 92nd and 93rd
Streets in the heart of Carnegie Hill....One unifying element
of the 'Commons' is the unusual prevalence of rowhouses - 29 in
total, all built by 1890...A further unifying element is that
two-thirds of these were designed by only two architects, James
E. Ware and A. B. Ogden....Of the 29 original houses, 21 reemain
essentially intact. Remarkably, the structures that replaced the
eight demolished rowhouse are either of equal height or lower,
thus maintaining the low scale character...While taller buildings
also exist at each intersection, their dominance is mitigated
by the pattern in which they are arranged. at each intersection,
at least two buildings are low in scale and positioned so that
they diagonally opose each other... Of the three intersections,
this was originally the lowesst, but in the last 70 years, two
tall buildngs have replaced the lower structures of the other
two corners. There is, therefore, no room for a third tall building
at this intersection if the low-scale village feeling is to be
preserved and the northward march of the canyon walls is to be
Clearly, if this logic
is to be followed, we should raze Manhattan to the ground. Look
out for those canyon walls. What's so special about about 1890.
Why not roll back the clock to 1690, or 1490?
The City Review, unfortunately, did not cover
the hearing nor publish an article on this controversy until now,
quite long after the commission ruled in favor of the community
activists and against the developer. Community activists, of course,
very often raise very legitimate and important concerns and not
every developer, of course, is inspired.
Like the presence of
Jackie Onassis in controversies over the landmark status of Grand
Central Terminal and the length of shadows that might be cast
by a proposed new tower on the site of the New York Coliseum at
Columbus Circle, the presence of Woody Allen as an opponent of
a proposed, 17-story apartment building on the northeast corner
of Madison Avenue and 91st Street on a site long occupied by a
not terribly interesting-looking, one-story bank building was
widely publicized and helped to sway the landmarks commission
to deny a "certificate of appropriateness" for the proposed
of course, is not so brash as to think that if it had published
an article in favor of the tower that it would have made much
difference, but it might have since very few came forward to defend
the plan, or rather attack the premises on which it was being
attacked. (It perhaps should be noted that as architecture critic
of The New York Post some years ago I wrote a column that attacked
some of the same community activists for their incredible hard-line
on the infamous "Too-Tall" building on 96th Street between
Park and Lexington Avenue and insisted, successfully, that the
developer lop off the top 12 floors of a modest apartment tower
because of an error by a Buildings Department official and that
the tower could have been built legally by moving it on its site
a few feet.)
case, at least, the building has not yet been built so it does
not yet have to be demolished to satisfy the brick-lust of the
community activists and the need for sunshine in Woody Allen's
life, or garden, or the nice views of the Brick Presbyterian Church
at the other end of the block for some residents of the medium-size
apartment tower on the avenue directly across from the site in
record of the city over the past couple of decades in these "Not
In My Back Yard" (NIMBY) controversies has been abysmal with
the city and its agencies caving in to the unreasonable and occasionally
self-serving interests of a small cadre of activists. One of the
more famous victories for the activists was the defeat of a plan
to erect an major Central Park West apartment tower of considerable
distinction and great context over the New York Historical Society
at 77th Street, presumably saving views of Central Park for half
a dozen or some residents of a nearby midblock building (See a reproduction
of that project in a book review in The City Review of a very fine
book on preservation by Paul Byard, a member of the architectural
firm that designed the proposed tower for Madison Avenue.)
community activists, of course, are not at fault and are to be
praised for their efforts in most instances. The blame lies with
the city's politicians and their cowardice and design ignorance.
The bank building occupies
a prime site at one of the highest points in the Carnegie Hill
neighborhood, which over the last decade or so has become one
of the most sought-after residential locations because of its
concentration of many schools, religious institutions and high-quality,
pre-war apartment buildings with large apartments.
Madison Avenue has long
been the "Main Street" of Carnegie Hill with many boutiques
and a few restaurants as well as hardware and stationery stores.
Many of the city's most important cultural institutions such as
the Cooper-Hewitt Museum of Design in the former Andrew Carnegie
mansion, the National Academy of Design, the Jewish Museum and
the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum are all located on Fifth Avenue
in the high 80's and low 90s. The International Center of Photography
had occupied the former Willard Straight mansion at 94th Street
and Fifth Avenue but rather surprisingly announced in 2000 it
would relocate to midtown.
The proposed new tower
would not be the first in this stretch of Madison Avenue as Rose
Associates erected a 45-story, red-brick apartment tower between
89th and 90th Streets and another highly visible, beige and angled
apartment tower was built a few years later on the southeast corner
of the avenue at 94th Street. Furthermore, most of the avenue
in the immediate vicinity and to the south and west is filled
with apartment buildings of 12 to 18 stories.
The City Review was negligent in not covering
this controversy earlier and indeed had requested and obtained
a copy of the proposed development plans from the architectural
firm, Platt Byard Dovell. After studying the plans, I was convinced
that the proposed tower was very much in conformity with the general
massing of most of the surrounding apartment buildings and was,
indeed, in some ways better because its façades had large
multi-paned windows that gave the project a handsome texture that
employed an old design treatment with a nice and modest touch
of modernity that was not out of keeping with some of the nearby
Art Deco buildings.
The one glaring problem
with the proposal was its exposed watertank, which can be seen
in the architectural drawing below from the west. Exposed watertanks
flourish and abound on the city's skyline and many people find
them rather quaint, despite the fact that some of the better developers
and architects have often found very interesting and decorative
ways to enclose them to add a handsome flourish to their projects.
exposed watertank, however, was not highly visible from most other
directions and the proposed tower's aesthetics were certainly
no worse than the similar size apartment buildings directly across
the avenue, a white-brick building, and across 91st Street.
A closer reading of
the developer's proposal, however, revealed that the developer
and architect had indeed paid great attention to the question
of exposed watertanks and found that almost a majority of the
apartment buildings with an adjacent area of several blocks had
The exposed watertanks
are incongruous with the otherwise quite distinguished architecture
of many of these old buildings and this plan visually hid part
of the exposed water tank with a vertical element on the avenue
While the developer
and architect obviously covered their tracks on the watertank
issue with their extensive documentation, the exposed watertank
was a design element that should have been decoratively enclosed
given the prominent visibility of the site and while this would
obviously be more expensive for the development it would not significantly
alter the building's economics most likely.
It should be pointed
out that the existing building on the site is particularly unattractive.
While its red-brick masonry is pleasant, the building has no design
distinction and is rather blatantly festooned with large blue
and white signage for Citibank that is perhaps as offensive to
this "refined" neighborhood" as a rather stark
and bold sign for a Duane Reade notions store that opened up a
couple of years ago two blocks to the south on the avenue in a
mid-block location with less visibility than the bank's sign.
Such signage is not discrete and is very commercial and not in
context with the overall neighborhood pattern.
The opponents to the
proposed tower did not argue to preserve the existing building
out of love for its architecture or its signage, but because it
was only one-story high it did not cast shadows on the mid-block
gardens to the east, including one recently purchased by Woody
Allen, and therefore also opened up vistas of the handsome mid-block
buildings on 91st Street and the graceful spire of the Brick Presbyterian
Church on Park Avenue at the end of the block.
An argument could be
made that the occasional low-rise block on Madison Avenue permits
a greater sense of openness and more "light and air,"
zoning concepts that are valid in many instances. This is one
of those sights that deserve such consideration since the buildings
that occupy the north half of the avenue blockfront adjacent to
the proposed tower on the east side are not only low-rise but
There is a real problem,
however, with this approach as it permits Historic Districts to
override local zoning and subject property owners within them
to the current whims of local community activists and the Landmarks
Views and shadows have
no legal standing in the city's zoning and indeed history for
the true character of New York is its changing, eclectic skyline,
which would be not exist if the protectors of views and shadow-chasers
had their way.
There are some occasions,
one must admit, with some views are very important and perhaps
should be held sacrosanct, or somehow protected. Perhaps the most
obvious example is the blocking of much of the view from north
of 59th Street on Fifth Avenue of the Empire State Building by
the handsome and interesting skyscraper at 712 Fifth Avenue (see
The City Review article on that skyscraper).
Although I pointed out in an article in The New York Times
many years ago that the double skywalks across Lexington Avenue
proposed, and subsequently built, by Hunter College at 68th Street
would block and severely interrupt the vistas up and down the
avenues and set a very bad precedent, no preservationists came
forward to attack them.
In earlier times, one
could argue that Trinity Church's spire at Wall Street and Broadway
should not have been topped by adjacent buildings, and indeed
the City of Philadelphia did debate for a while not permitting
new towers to rise above its sensational and tall City Hall, although
in the end taller towers were built. The view of New York's own
City Hall was blocked for many years by a wedding-cake pile of
an office structure at the south end of City Hall Park.
Conceiveably, the city
could have enacted legislation that would require a public review
and approval process for specific, extraordinary individual New
York City landmarks, but it has not, instead creating Historic
Districts in which all proposed changes must be approved by the
Landmarks Preservation Commission, as in this case. The only building
in this case whose view would be partially blocked from one direction
is the Brick Presbyterian Church and the view that would be partially
blocked is of its back and the blocking of that view is not catacyclismic
to the aesthetic stability of the church or the city.
All that one can say
to the few residents who might have to suffer altered views or
more shadows is "tough." A basic premise of the city's
zoning in residential areas has long been that midblocks should
be low-rise and taller buildings permitted on the avenues, which
are broader than the sidestreets.
Views are a very expensive
premium in New York real estate and understandably so, but New
York City real estate is sold "as is" and developers
and owners do not have infinite control of views in all directions
from their properties and it is preposterous to suggest that they
should or could.
In 1961, four years
before the city finally got around to creating a landmarks law,
the First National City Bank, the precessor to Citibank, demolished
four Queen Anne townhouses that were built in 1885-6 on the northeast
corner of 91st and Madison Avenue and had been acquired by the
bank in January, 1950.
It erected a one-story
building on the site in 1951 that was designed by Lusby Simpson,
an in-house architect for the bank, who died in 1954.
The one-story building
used red brick but was, and is, quite plain, as can be seen in
the photograph at the top of this article.
When the citys
Landmarks Preservation Commission created a Carnegie Hill Historic
District, it specifically excluded this site, perhaps because
there were few defenders of its architectural merit. Subsequently,
the commission significantly enlarged the historic district and
this site was included and as such any exterior change to it must
be approved by the commission.
The Moinan Development
Corporation applied to the commission for approval to erect a
17-story apartment building to replace the one-story bank structure
and the commission held a hearing on the application at which
some civic groups such as the Carnegie Hill Neighbors and residents,
such as Woody Allen, who recently moved into the neighborhood,
urged the commission to turn down the application, primarily on
the grounds that they did not want a tall building on the site
although one is permitted under zoning.
The controversy is fairly
classic Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) syndrome. People entrenched
in an neighborhood want to preserve their views and therefore
their property values, maintain the status quo and prevent more
people from living in the neighborhood.
In the 1960s and
1970s, some inroads were made by regional planners and civil
rights activists against what was then called "exclusionary"
zoning in some suburbs that made it difficult economically for
new people, especially not superwealthy people, from acquiring
property. Some local zoning regulations were rewritten that somewhat
eased the "restrictiveness" of such laws and some progress
has been made to prevent them being used for racial discrimination.
In the 1970s,
the environment movement had its biggest victory when Marcy Benstock
campaigned successfully to block the city from receiving more
than a billion dollars in Federal subsidies to create very significant
new park land along the Hudson River in Manhattan as part of the
Westway plan to rebuild the deteriorated West Side Highway. She
was, remarkably, able to convince Federal courts and the Army
Corps of Engineers that some fish habitats might be disturbed
by the large planned landfill that would have been the second
greatest park in the city after Central Park. Her Goliathesque
victory emboldened neighborhood activists all over the city to
wage vigorous campaigns against almost all new proposed developments.
Some were opposed because they were considered locally undesirable
local uses (LULUs), others because they were considered not to
be in context architecturally, others because they were too big,
and others just out of plain, good old American oneryness.
Some major projects
suffered agony for many years before being reborn in different
guises, most notably the plans of Prudential Life Insurance Company
and Park Tower Realty to redevelop West 42nd Street and of Boston
Properties, which is headed by Mortimer Zuckerman, the publisher
of U. S. News & World Reports and the New York News, to erect
a large, mixed-use tower on the site of the New York Coliseum
at Columbus Circle. The grandiose former plan was subdivided after
tortuous years of legal challenges and subsequently developed
in a rather helter-skelter fashion mostly by other parties after
the original plan and commitment had led to the incredible renaissance
of Times Square. The latter plan was thwarted by a group of civic
activists that had support by the Municipal Art Society and such
well-known figures as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Bill Moyers,
the journalist, who argued that the tower would cast terrible
shadows in Central Park but who calmly chose not to call for the
demolition of the General Motors Building or all of Central Park
South, which also cast such shadows.
The courts have extended
citizens protections from many things, but not yet shadows.
How could these concerned
citizens be so successful in battling the forces of evil they
The answer traces its
roots back to the early days of tabloid television when the loudest
screamer at a rally would get the most air-time and to the empowerment
of local community boards, which were created in the 1960s
and given an important role in zoning some years later when the
city revised some of its Uniform Land Use Review Process (ULURP)
procedures. There are 12 community boards in Manhattan and many
more in the other boroughs. Any development project that is not
"as-of-right," that is, which requires any public approval,
or variance, must be submitted to the ULURP process.
The real responsibility
for preventing aberations and abuse of the landmark process is
a responsible, accurate and timely press for it is the duty of
the press to alert and bring pressure on politicians and the public.
The City Review was derelict in being so late in reporting
on this proposal. Conceivably, the plan can be resubmitted, a
bit shorter, perhaps, and with an enclosed watertank and hopefully
sanity will return to Carnegie Hill. The design of the proposal
tower was conservative, dignified and rather contextual.
In March, 2001, the
developer presented a scaled-down, revised plan for the site that
called for a building of 10 stories, but the civic activists continued
their opposition and convinced Community Board 8 to vote against
it. The Landmarks Preservation Commission scheduled a April 3
meeting on the revised plan. (3/30/01)
In November, 2001,
the developer presented yet another revised plan that lowered
the building height to 9 stories plus penthouse but Community
Board 8 remained opposed and recommended that the new plan be
turned down by the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission. (11/23/01)
In December, 2001,
the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission approved the developer's
third proposal for the site but requested a revised treatment
of the building's windows. (5/25/02).
early 2003, construction finally began on the 9-story building
by the Tamarkin Company. The building will have seven full-floor
apartments and one duplex penthouse with a one-story rusticated
base and a beige-brick facade. The building will have its entrance
at 47 East 91st Street. While it certainly is much more attractive
than the one-story red-brick retail building it is replacing,
it is much smaller than the other corner buildings at this intersection.
It is sedate and nice, but not terribly exciting and not as interesting
as the developer's previous plans. Another victory for tasteless
and selfish community activists who haven't the foggiest notion
of why the city was great. (4/3/03)