In a contentious and lengthy hearing Monday evening, the landmarks committee of Midtown's Community Board 5 rejected a bid to have the 43-year-old Park Lane Hotel designated both an exterior and interior landmark. While community boards don't hold any actual power, they are advisory bodies whose decisions are carefully considered by city agencies like the Landmarks Preservation Commission. While the session was about the past and present, many fear what it will mean for the future.
The 46-story building, located at 36 Central Park South between Fifth and Sixth avenues was designed by the firm Emery Roth & Sons, and completed in 1971 at the commission of Harry Helmsley. It is a through-block building and the tallest building on Central Park South. It features a limestone and glass exterior, as well as a semi-circular driveway on 58th Street (the only "unique" feature committee member Renee Cafaro could come up with).
Last year, it was purchased by developer Steven Witkoff of the Witkoff Group and Macklowe Properties for $660 million. Supertall towers are popping up all over the area, and the fear is that the Witkoff group will raze the Park Lane and replace it with something nearly double the height. And the fear isn't unsubstantiated: Witkoff has said that he plans to demolish the building and build an 850-foot structure. That would require approval from the Bureau of Standard and Appeals, which has not happened, nor has a formal proposal for the future of the site. Witkoff told the committee that he has a "deep respect for the community board process" and that if they saw it as a landmark, they would not take it down. His attorney pointed to architects' and critics' thoughts of the building. In fact, the New York Times reported that architect Richard Roth, Jr. didn't even consider it special, a point somewhat refuted by his daughter Robin, who was in attendance.
The team pushing for the landmark designation, which had initially asked chair Layla Law-Gisiko to recuse herself over previous press coverage of the issue, was represented at the meeting by architects John Furth Peachy and Mark Mueller. They had applied to the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which actually makes decisions such as this, for full review to become a landmark, but was denied that at their staff level. At that time, they did not put the bid before the community board. Now, having done more research and put together a bigger presentation, they went before the community board with the hope of their blessing for re-application to the LPC.
Peachy and Mueller said the Park Lane Hotel reflects a "dynamic period" in New York City history and was the "crown jewel in the Helmsley empire." They pointed out how many original facets remain intact and noted that the building bridged the gap between modernism and post-modernism. They said the limestone was contextually consistent, and they also pointed to famous visitors, such as the members of Led Zeppelin having visited in 1976, Farrah Fawcett in 1978, and Aretha Franklin having had her 70th birthday party there.
But one member of the committee said the points raised were "so thin" that the building did not merit designation. He also said famous visitors didn't matter. Cafaro referred to the building as "generally bland" and said there are many examples of both this style and the architect himself still surviving in New York City. The motion to deny landmark status passed unanimously.
Members of the public who spoke were asked to speak only to the building as it exists today since what comes next is outside the purview of the landmarks committee. New construction not involving a landmark building is handled by the land use committee. That didn't stop them from expressing their fears. Nicholas West said he feared the "ramifications" of not landmarking the building and what it would do to the Central Park South skyline. He was not alone. Another said there were really only about ten years when Central Park South ruled and this was a reminder of that period. Roth's daughter said her father liked that the building had a top and bottom. Leo Blackman, President of the Historic Districts Council's board of directors, on the other hand, called the case for designation "pretty thin."
Monday's vote by the Community Board 5 landmarks committee doesn't mean the building can't be landmarked. While the LPC doesn't always rule with community boards, it certainly does take their votes into account.
—Evan Bindelglass is a local freelance journalist, photographer, cinephile, and foodie. You can e-mail him, follow him on Twitter @evabin, or check out his personal blog.
· Park Lane Hotel [Official]
· Save Park Lane Hotel [Official]
· All Helmsley Park Lane Hotel coverage [Curbed]