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Midtown East Landmarking Proposal Riles Preservationists, Transportation Advocates

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The Pershing Square Building is the main point of contention

The proposal to rezone a large part of Midtown East, to revitalize the neighborhood, and attract more high rise office buildings to the neighborhoods, will likely be unveiled by the end of this year. But before that plan is approved, preservationists have been fighting to ensure that several historic buildings in the neighborhood remain intact even as development takes place all around them.

To that effect, the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission earmarked 12 buildings in the area in May that would be considered for landmarking over the course of the year. A public hearing for five of those buildings—the Pershing Square Building at 125 Park Avenue, the Graybar Building at 420 Lexington Avenue, the former Shelton Hotel Building at 525 Lexington Avenue, The Benjamin Hotel at 125 East 50th Street, and the Hotel Lexington at 511 Lexington Avenue—took place Tuesday morning.

The most controversial of them all was the Pershing Square Building, where transportation advocates and preservationists have opposing views of about the future of the building. The building sits atop the southern terminus of Grand Central, and is a key access point to the 4,5,6 subway lines, one of the busiest (in terms of commuters) across the country.

Those opposed to landmarking the building argued that such a measure would not allow for the vital infrastructural improvements that are required to provide better accessibility to the subway there.

Architect and Columbia University professor Vishaan Chakrabarti, who was present at the meeting Tuesday, argued against landmarking, and said it would "hobble the transportation hub," and make it extremely difficult to make improvements to the existing entrances. While he commended the efforts to preserve the historic character of Midtown East, he said it shouldn’t be at the cost of pitting infrastructure against preservation.

Several others supported that argument including the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY), Grand Central Partnership, the group that manages the Grand Central Business Improvement District, and the Riders Alliance. The latter pointed to the fact that the rezoning would bring thousands of new commuters to the neighborhood and put pressure on the already packed subway lines, and that the focus now should be to make improvements to the Pershing Square Building.

SL Green, the owners of the building, and the developers behind One Vanderbuilt, have agreed to make several infrastructural improvements if the rezoning moves forward, but with landmarking that would be extremely difficult, a representative for the company said at the hearing. The developer is similarly opposed to the landmarking of the Graybar Building, which it also owns, and said it would add several unnecessary upkeep costs, especially considering the fact that it doesn’t plan to redevelop the building.

Preservationists however did not buy into these arguments whatsoever. A representative for Municipal Arts Society mentioned that their organization had spoken to several engineers who argued that such transportation problems could be solved if there was a will to do so. A representative for the Historic Districts Council pointed to the efforts at the Palace Theater as an example of preserving a building while also accommodating commercial and retail needs. The local community board concurred, as did Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer.

Meenakshi Srinivasan, the chair of the LPC, recognized the difficulties in choosing between infrastructural improvements and preservation but pointed to other historic buildings where infrastructural elements did work successfully. She used the subways connected to the Rockefeller Center and Brooklyn Borough Hall as examples.

A public hearing for the other seven buildings that are part of the Midtown East initiative will likely be held this fall, and the commission is hoping to reach a verdict on them before the end of the year.