A large crowd is a bad sign for an applicant at the Landmarks Preservation Commission, and the final item on Tuesday's agenda drew a crowd so big that LPC staffers had to find extra chairs in a closet. As expected, plans for a condo building next to the Lucerne Hotel on the Upper West Side hit a wall, and the LPC did not approve plans to demolish the existing five-story building at 207 West 79th Street between Amsterdam and Broadway and construct a new 16-story building, which would have been taller than the historic Lucerne.
The team representing developer Anbau Enteprises came with all the bells and whistles, including a detailed PowerPoint presentation and models of the proposed building. Elise Quasebarth from the preservation firm Higgins Quasebarth & Partners talked about other buildings in the area and pointed out the fact that the existing building's façade is entirely non-original. While the four rowhouses at 203-209 West 79th were completed in 1897, they were combined into a single building with a new façade in 1974. She also cited historic ideas for expanding the Lucerne.
Architect Morris Adjmi, the designer of the proposed building, pointed out that the terra cotta ribbing is meant to complement certain floors of the Lucerne and the overall use of terra cotta. The balconies along the western corner of the building would have glass railings with terra cotta baguettes.
But the LPC commissioners were not sold. Chairwoman Meenakshi Srinivasan said she walked along West 79th Street over the weekend to get a feel for the block in preparation for the hearing. She said a tall building might be possible, but this was wrong. Commissioner Frederick Bland went a little philosophical for a minute, asking if demolition was appropriate, saying it had to be decided on a one-by-one basis and floating the idea of reconstruction. "Don't give up on all buildings with no style," he said, but then he negated himself by saying that the existing building didn't deserve reconstruction. Demolition would be entirely appropriate, but this proposal was too tall and the balconies have no place there (a sentiment echoed by most of the commissioners).
Commissioner Margery Perlmutter also questioned the height, suggested an alley in between the buildings, proposed setbacks to make the transition to any height more natural, and said the penthouse seemed like an "afterthought" which had just been plopped on top of the building. She pointed to the design as having been presented as restrained, but pointed out that there is a difference between restrained and bland. Commissioner Diana Chapin supported demolition and liked the material and color, but said if there were to be a penthouse, it should only be a single floor. Commissioner Roberta Washington said a new building should be the same height or shorter than the Lucerne. She also did not like the sidewall on the new building.
After that reaction from the commissioners, the hearing was "closed with no action." That's LPC speak for, "No, you can't do this. But you're welcome to revise your plans and come back for another go at it."
To say the reaction of elected officials and the public was less friendly to the idea would be an understatement. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer sent a statement saying "Any new building should retain the distinctive rhythm of the historic district." There were 14 speakers and all of them were opposed to the idea. City Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal opposed even demolition of the current building, saying "its height, in a mix with other buildings on the block allow for views of distinct buildings, such as the Lucerne, and allow for the air and light that make that area so special." State Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal sent a representative to read a statement, saying that the proposed building "would alter the essential character of this lot." Two different members of Community Board 7 rose in opposition to the proposal. Landmark West's Max Yeston said the new building would "overwhelm the Lucerne." The Historic Districts Council applauded the use of terra cotta, but said its potential was unrealized. HDC also suggested setbacks starting at the fifth floor so as to "preserve the scale of the existing streetscape and not compete with the incomparable Lucerne" and suggested placing the balconies at the building's rear.
79th Street resident Robin Green called it the proposal a "sore thumb." One UWS resident called it a "scar on the West Side." A resident of the corner of 79th and Amsterdam said there would be "collateral damage." So, uh, really not looking good for Anbau Enteprises.
—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.
· All 207 West 79th Street coverage [Curbed]
· All Landmarks Preservation Commission coverage [Curbed]