With a constant stream of new developments continually altering the face and character of New York City, preservationists and local residents have been increasingly fighting back to protect the historic character of their neighborhoods.
This year, developers and preservationists frequently butted heads over neighborhood-altering projects like the planned 700-foot tower on the Upper East Side that will lead to the loss of a beloved park, or the upcoming demolition of Skimore, Owings & Merrill’s 270 Park Avenue, which will become the tallest intentionally demolished building in the world.
Here’s how these preservation battles played out across New York City in 2018.
Marx Brothers Playground
What constitutes a park? That’s the crux of the debate surrounding the future of this compact outdoor space on the Upper East Side. Developer AvalonBay Communities wants to replace it with a 700-foot tower with apartments, two schools, a new park, and retail. And because of its designation as a Jointly Operated Playground (JOP)—extensions of schools that are open to the public but can cease operation based on the city’s needs—it’s within its rights to do so. But opponents argue that the new green space will be in a different location and will also have to cater to the hundreds of new residents in the residential development.
The fight has pitted de Blasio administration, which supports the residential project, against the City Council, which was shocked to learn that there are hundreds of JOPS throughout the city that could potentially be co-opted for development in the future. The playground is currently the subject of a lawsuit filed by several preservation groups against the city.
270 Park Avenue (aka Union Carbide Building)
In the first major development move following the Midtown East rezoning, City Hall and JP Morgan Chase announced that the banking giant would tear down its HQ at 270 Park Avenue and replace it with a new, 70-story office building. Also known as the Union Carbide building, the circa- was designed by SOM’s Gordon Bunshaft and Natalie de Blois, and was one of the few corporate skyscrapers designed by a woman in a largely male-dominated field.
Preservationists rallied to save the building, and Curbed’s architecture critic Alexandra Lange bemoaned its proposed demolition, stating “it’s the worst form of shortsighted to throw this building away.” But the tower isn’t landmarked—it didn’t make the cut when the Landmarks Preservation Commission made sweeping designations in Midtown prior to the rezoning—and that isn’t likely to change.
In November, Chase announced that it had selected Foster + Partners to design the new building, all but sealing the fate of the old tower. When it goes, it will become the tallest intentionally demolished building in the world.
Landmarks Preservation Commission’s proposed rule change
Earlier this year, the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission announced that it would introduce changes to its processes to make the functioning of the body more transparent and efficient. Almost immediately, the LPC was met with a swift backlash from preservationist groups, which criticized its decision to restrict changes like rooftop and backyard additions to staff-level meetings (presently, they’re debated at a public meeting).
The backlash was seen as a reason for former LPC Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan’s departure from the agency, and the Commission decided to roll back many of the controversial elements of its rule change proposal shortly after that. The LPC adopted a modified version of the rule changes in December.
The Baptist Church of the Redeemer
Despite the best efforts of Ditmas Park residents, this nearly century-old church will be replaced by a nine-story residential building with 76 affordable apartments. Local residents appealed to the Landmarks Preservation Commission, but the LPC felt the church did not merit designation as an individual landmark. With that, the fate of the church was sealed. Construction on the building is expected to be complete in the next two years.
550 Madison Avenue
Philip Johnson’s Postmodern icon also appeared on our list of preservation battles in 2017, but this year, at least part of the fight was won: The LPC designated the building as a landmark over the summer, and Snøhetta revamped its renovation plans for the tower—now, its iconic facade will be preserved—this fall.
But there have been some losses: Developers Olayan America and Chesfield America razed the lobby earlier this year, and without landmarks protection for that opulent space, there was no way to stop the demolition.
The Frick Collection
In April, the Frick Collection unveiled details and renderings of its $160 million expansion designed by Annabelle Selldorf Architects. Soon after, Upper East Side residents and preservationists expressed concerns, specifically around the Russell Page-designed garden, which would be altered as part of the expansion efforts. (A previous expansion plan designed by Davis Body Bond was ultimately discarded due to the huge backlash over the potential loss of the garden.)
Only a small portion of the garden will be altered in this case, and the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission was not swayed by the opposition, voting almost unanimously to approve the expansion (albeit after a revision). Construction can now move forward, and will take about two years from start to finish.
Hans S. Christian Memorial Kindergarten
When plans to replace a more than century-old former school building surfaced, Carroll Gardens residents rallied to protect the French Renaissance-style structure. Its current owners argued against landmarking the building citing additional upkeep costs, and the fact that the facade had been altered over the years. However, the Landmarks Commission agreed to consider local residents’ pleas and were eventually won over by the merits of the house and the adjoining apartment building to designate them both NYC landmarks.
Aside from their architectural merits, the buildings are also notable for their connection to Elmira Christian, an advocate for early childhood education, who ensured the preservation of these buildings toward the turn of the 20th century. The two-story building housed the Hans S. Christian Memorial Kindergarten, which was the first purpose built kindergarten in Brooklyn.
Soon after the city announced plans to replace the P.C. Richard & Son store near Union Square with a 21-story tech training center, local residents and preservation groups renewed efforts to protect the area from encroaching large-scale development. One element of that campaign: pushing to have seven buildings on Broadway, including the Strand’s home at 828 Broadway, designated as NYC landmarks. But even though the LPC has held a public hearing on those buildings, there are now two issues at play: The Strand’s owners do not want their building (which they own) landmarked, believing that it will “destroy a piece of New York history.”
And preservationists are still fighting to preserve the former St. Denis Hotel at 799 Broadway, which was not taken up by the LPC for landmarking consideration because its facade has been “significantly altered,” per the commission. But the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation hasn’t quit, holding rallies and generally raising awareness of the building’s history.
Merchant’s House Museum
Earlier this year, a developer renewed efforts to build a hotel on a lot next to the East Village’s Merchant’s House Museum. The museum staff and preservationists have been arguing for years that any adjacent development could permanently and irreparably damage the 186-year-old building. Despite these concerns, the LPC signed off on the hotel plans in 2014.
The developer, however, came up against several roadblocks this year as the museum and preservationists upped their efforts to protect the small red-brick structure. First, the local community board rejected the eight-story hotel development; then the museum took legal action; finally, the City Council dealt the final blow. In September, City Council member Carlina Rivera said she was open to discussions with the developer about the future of the project but that she would oppose any development that could potentially cause harm to the museum.
S.W. Bowne Grain Storehouse
For over a decade, Gowanus residents have been trying to landmark this 19th century warehouse building, along with other industrial buildings in the neighborhood. A planned rezoning of the neighborhood has further intensified efforts by preservationists to protect these structures before the neighborhood is overrun with development. In June, a mysterious fire ripped through the warehouse, damaging parts of the building, but leaving it largely intact. A month later, the FDNY said the fire was intentionally started, but further details have not been released.
The warehouse is owned by the Chetrit Group, which filed demolition permits last year. Those were rejected by the city’s Department of Buildings. Neighbors, however, noticed construction work taking place at the site, and the DOB later issued a stop work order on the building.