It was one heckuva battle waged before the Landmarks Preservation Commission on Tuesday, but suffice it to say big changes are not about to come to a through-block site that spans from West 18th Street to West 17th Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues. Part of the Ladies Mile Historic District, a planby an architect the LPC usually adores, Morris Adjmi, who has done lauded work in the very same areato restore existing buildings on those streets (40-42 and 45, respectively) and construct a new through-block building (38 and 41-43 respectively) was not approved.
Adjmi, along with Bill Higgins of the preservation firm Higgins Quasebarth & Partners, presented the plan. (The developer was nowhere to be found.) The current buildings on 18th Street are home to the Adorama photo store; meanwhile, the new building would house both commercial and residential space. It would have a different design facing each street, and a shared three-story central area. The 17th Street side would be 18 stories tall (185 feet to the roof) and use an interesting combination of a standard building box followed by a layer for the windows, another layer for a metal frame, and then a metal mesh that would simulate brickwork. All of those elements would combine to echo the historic through-block building just to the west of the site (which also has different facades on each street). The 18th Street side would be a much narrower 17-story building (170 feet to the roof) with four windows across, but at the top floor the edges would be far less defined.
Even if the LPC had given this project their official okie-dokie, it would still have to get through the Bureau of Standards and Appeals. That's because that municipal body would need to grant waivers to allow several aspects of the designthe lack of setbacks on 17th Street, the connecting central area, and the height above 60 feet on 18th Street.
While the LPC wasn't ready to approve this project, the rejection was hardly across the board, as the heights weren't found objectionable by all of the commissioners, and several praised the designs. LPC chair Meenakshi Srinivasan tried to keep the discussion separated between two topics: the height, and the building materials proposed.
Srinivasan was one of several on the commission who suggested making a shorter building. Adjmi, though, said that popping up would help the building add to the streetscape on 18th Street. Commissioner Roberta Washington said the heights were "out of place." Commissioner Diana Chapin was okay with the heights. Commissioner Frederick Bland said they were "fine" and that a Park Avenue-like wall would be wrong in Chelsea. Commissioner Michael Goldblum was also okay with having buildings taller than their neighbors as long as they're "in scale." He said slightly shorter buildings could also work, but this proposal "wouldn't mess with 18th Street."
As for materials, Srinivasan said that new materials and contemporary architecture have their place in historic districts. She called the 17th Street proposal "fascinating." Bland said the design and materials were "extraordinarily appropriate" and pointed to the "quality" of the proposal. "Breathtaking additions," he called them. He said the commission should guard against "banal" buildings. Commissioner Christopher Moore said it was "intriguing and appropriate." Goldblum, though, noted the design was creative and interesting, but not there yet. He wanted more play on 17th Street and more defined edges on 18th Street.
Then the community weighed in, leaning heavily against the designs. Michelle Golden of the Flatiron Alliance said, "We find them positive, but they don't belong on Ladies Mile." A resident of 32 West 18th Street called the design "inappropriate" and opposed the granting of waivers that would skirt the setback requirement. Leo Blackman of the Drive to Protect the Ladies Mile objected to the building materials, for which he said there was "no precedent." Jack Taylor of the same organization said the applicant had not been a good neighbor in allowing the existing buildings to deteriorate to a "stage of virtual demolition by neglect" and that the proposal "falls somewhat short." Srinivasan said that Community Board 5 recommended rejection.
Barbara Zay of the Historic Districts Council praised the restoration of the existing low-rise structures as well as the design for the new 18th Street structure, but felt the 17th Street side was a different story. "The concept of a stainless steel mesh screen that simulates the intricacy of masonry is an interesting gesture toward the historic district's architectural vocabulary, but we worry that such a literal replication would end up appearing too contrived," she said. "The building, thus, lies somewhere between a glass curtain wall skyscraper and a Beaux-Arts style commercial building, yet can be called neither."
—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 Ladies Mile Historic District coverage [Curbed]
· All Landmarks Preservation coverage [Curbed]