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Preservationists, Neighbors Pan Friends Seminary's Expansion

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Friends Seminary, a private K-12 school, has proposed an expansion to its Gramercy Park campus. The school claims the move is necessary to provide adequate facilities to a growing student body. (And, to be fair, New York City private schools such as Trinity, Chapin, Trevor Day, Manhattan Country Day, Riverdale, and others, are all expanding.) The Landmarks Preservation Commission isn't disputing the ends, but, at its session on Tuesday, did have issues with the means they proposed to go about it. The proposal called for enlargement of both the school's townhouses and another building on East 16th Street called Hunter Hall, as well as a re-working of its rear courtyard. The commissioners—and many nearby residents—had issues with how visible such changes would be.

The buildings in question run from 212 to 222 East 16th Street in the Stuyvesant Square Historic District, east of Gramercy Park and west of Stuy Town. The school owns three Anglo-Italianate style rowhouses (referred to during the session as both rowhouses and townhouses) that date from 1852, and a four-story building to the east now known as Hunter Hall, which was built in 1965.

Friends Seminary principal Bo Lauder, who presented the expansion plan to the LPC along with architect Frances Halsband of Kliment Halsband Architects, said that one-third of the campus is currently unusable. Currently, the floors of the townhouses and Hunter Hall don't match up evenly, which makes accessibility a problem. Part of the proposal would fix that, combining them into one building internally.

But the school also says it needs more space. So, they proposed to add to the roofs of the buildings, raising them to about 70 feet. Some of the addition, including atop Hunter Hall, would be glassy. The small yard in front of the townhouses would also be reconfigured into a more green space, plus flagpoles would be added to the building. On the rear, all signs that the townhouses were originally three separate buildings would be lost. Another rear reconfiguration would include a "peace garden." There would also be restoration work on the exterior of the townhouses.

Friends even produced the following video to promote and explain the expansion plan. The school also has a dedicated website with renderings.

Then came the reaction. LPC Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan called the site "interesting and complex." She initially suggested more bulk on Hunter Hall and less on the townhouses, and also wanted some nod to the historic rear of the townhouses. She also praised the planned restoration.

Commissioner Frederick Bland said the entire city is experiencing "incredible growth pains" and that "unless we lock the doors" and keep new people out, we have to come up with a way to deal with them. He said he could accept the leveling of the floors, and even the changes to the rear of the townhouses, because they'd be invisible to the public. However, he could not accept the height increase over the modern building.

Commissioner Diana Chapin was "troubled" by the bulk and visibility of the proposed expansion. Commissioner Michael Goldblum suggested creating more below-grade space (a.k.a. underground) for the school. Commissioner Roberta Washington wanted less intervention for the townhouses. Commissioner John Gustafsson was okay with five stories, but not six, and also called for looking to expand below grade. He was also not wild about the materials (mainly glass) used in some parts of the design. Commissioner Kim Vauss wanted the backs of the townhouses saved.

So, Friends and its design team was sent back to the drawing board and asked to explore other options that take the LPC's concerns—like reduced visibility and the possibility of underground construction—into account in order to achieve their purpose.

In a city blamed for its NIMBYism, Community Board 6 actually supported the proposal 32-0. A representative of City Councilwoman Rosie Mendez expressed the official's support for the project and noted that it is below the maximum allowable height. She was concerned, though, about some of the work on the townhouses.

Meanwhile, the Historic Districts Council opposed the proposal, calling it "gratuitous and insensitive to both the Friends Seminary complex and the Stuyvesant Square Historic District as a whole." "The colossal additions proposed for above the 1850s rowhouses and the 1960s school building are extremely visible from all angles," HDC's Barbara Zay said. "Even worse, their scale overwhelms, when, in fact, it should be subservient to this block's wonderful assemblage of historic buildings." Zay said the HDC took issue with the massing, proposed materials, and even the flagpoles.

Jack Taylor, speaking on behalf of the Stuyvesant Park Neighborhood Association, said the group considered "many aspects of this proposal to be serious assaults on the skyline, the streetscape, and, indeed, the integrity of the Stuyvesant Square Historic District." He said "upward is not the way to go," criticized the visibility of the proposal (including the flagpoles), and suggested the school explore taking advantage of the area in the rear of the buildings. Christabel Gough of the Society for the Architecture of the City called the proposal "troubling."

Many members of the public, mostly residents of 200 East 16th Street, spoke out against the proposal. Words and phrases used included "atrocity," "shocked," "concerned," and "negative impact on the distinct character of the neighborhood." One person even suggested modifying Hunter Hall to look more like other buildings in the neighborhood.

To be sure, there were also many people who spoke out in support of the proposal, mostly parents of Friends Seminary students. Some spoke of inappropriate class sizes and students with disabilities unable to even get to class. That brought one parent to tears. However, in an unusual move, several people who work for the school signed up to deliver public testimony. But they were told that they should speak with the official presentation team, not as part of the public hearing.

Here's the entire presentation, with lots more renderings, graphics, and photos:

—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.
· Friends Seminary Redevelopment & Construction Project [official]
· All Landmarks Preservation coverage [Curbed]