Landmarks Approves New 14-story Tower in Historic District

Project will entail the demolition of 1961 office and warehouse building occupied by the Catholic Medical Mission Board. On December 16, 2014, the Landmarks Preservation Commission voted to approve an application for a new building at 8 West 17th Street in the Ladies’ Mile Historic District. The site is currently occupied by a 3-story 1961 commercial building designed by the firm Belfatto and Pavarino, known mostly for their ecclesiastical architecture.

Bruce Wilkinson, CEO and President of the Catholic Medical Mission Board which is headquartered in the building, testified the building no longer serves the Board’s purposes and the proceeds from its sale will help finance the organization’s mission of bringing healthcare to people around the world.

Beyer Blinder Belle’s Kate McHale testified the existing building did not contribute to the primarily 19th-century character of the historic district and was not an architecturally significant structure in its own right. McHale noted the building’s style is not identified as “modern” in the designation report and called it one of Belfatto and Pavarino’s more “mundane” projects.

Architect Richard Southwick presented the plan for the proposed building, which would rise to twelve stories at the streetwall, an additional set-back two-story duplex, and a rooftop bulkhead. Mr. Southwick noted the site was adjoined by 12- and 14-story buildings and said the “contextual” proposed building would complete the streetwall. The 45-foot-wide building would be clad in limestone at the three-story base with a terra cotta rain screen above.  It would have a vertical arrangement with horizontal spandrels, a double-height capitol, and topped by a metal cornice. Its cornice would align with the roofline of the lower adjoining building. The facade would be unadorned, for a “contemporary” architectural expression, while the massing and proportions would more closely match the district’s contemporary architecture. The penthouse stories and bulkhead would only be visible from the rear, and then only against taller buildings, never the sky.  The buildings’ rear, partially visible from some oblique street vantages, would be simply faced in pale brick with punched-window openings and balconies.

The New York Landmarks Conservancy’s Andrea Goldwyn testified the proposed demolition was acceptable, and the new “modest” design was appropriate, but the penthouse stories and bulkhead were excessive. Kelly Carrol of the Historic Districts Council also found the demolition appropriate, but found the proposed new building “appeared in pallor” in its surroundings, and recommended further refinement to the design. Paimaan Lodhi of the Real Estate Board of New York testified in support of the application, saying the proposal was “beautifully designed,” and would fit in well on the block of tall store-and-loft buildings.  Landmarks Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan stated Manhattan Community Board 5 had issued a resolution supporting the demolition and the proposed new structure.

Members of an adjoining co-op spoke in opposition, arguing they had been required by Landmarks to maintain their visible sidewall, which would be covered by the proposed development and was historically significant material. One neighbor contested the notion that the existing building at the site was of limited architectural value, saying they had been built by leading church architects of the time, and echoed the language of Crusader forts. Another speaker read a letter from Marjorie Pearson, former Director of Research at Landmarks, into the record.  Ms. Pearson argued buildings of a variety of styles and development periods can contribute to a historic district, and the demolition of the existing building would have “an adverse effect” on the Ladies’ Mile district.

In response to the Commissioners’ questions, Landmarks Counsel Mark Silberman stated that while visible sidewalls fell under Landmarks’ jurisdiction, the protection of secondary facades had not traditionally been a reason for preventing new development.  Chair Srinivasan determined the proposed new building was appropriate for the site, “sedate”, and in the character of the district’s tall store-and-loft buildings. Commissioner Diana Chapin found the proposed demolition appropriate, saying the existing building was neither “a notable example” of the firm’s work, nor “of this particular style.” Commissioner Michael Goldblum found the proposal to be “a perfectly appropriate background building,” but commented he would ideally have liked to have seen a less deferential proposal. Commissioner Roberta Washington commented applicants should consider a screen for the rooftop mechanical equipment if it could not be lowered, rather than the solid wall proposed in the application.  Commissioners voted unanimously to issue a certificate of appropriateness for the project, after Srinivasan asked the applicants to work with Landmarks staff on minimizing the visual impact of the bulkhead.

LPC: 8 West 17th Street, Manhattan (16-3857) (Dec. 16, 2014) (Architect: Beyer Blinder Belle).

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