Landmarks rejects Madison Avenue tower by vote of 9-1

Developer invited to submit another design. Following a lengthy presentation by real estate developer Aby Rosen’s team, Landmarks indicated its clear unwillingness to approve the 26-story tower addition proposed to top the Parke-Bernet building at 980 Madison Avenue within the Upper East Side Historic District.

The project architect Lord Norman Foster started the January 16th presentation with a photograph of the original 1949 Parke-Bernet building and its appearance now, after a 1950s alteration added another full-block story. Foster argued that the heavy, horizontal addition detracted from the original building, leading to the “paradox,” that, as Foster referred to it, a vertical contrast, or tower, would best preserve the design intactness of the original building.

Foster explained that his team designed over 50 versions, altering the setback, height and profile before the design reached its final, slim, two-tower, stepped-profile. As he spoke, he pointed to the models grouped before him and projected renderings on a large screen facing the hearing room. Foster showed the Upper East Side skyline at dusk with his tower’s added silhouette, calling it a “sympathetic and harmonious cluster” in relation to the nearby Carlyle Hotel. He argued that if he repeated the Carlyle tower design, the result – projected onto the front screen – would be a bulky incarnation that detracted from its Parke-Bernet base. Seeming to anticipate the commissioner’s comments, Foster added that his final design “was not a building that could be transferred anywhere”

Foster’s presentation also touched upon changes in facade materials, the pedestrian views of the tower from 53 street corners, and the proposed green building technology. When he summed up, the public hearing room broke into applause.

Rosen’s other team members, historic preservationist William Higgins and attorney Michael Sillerman, argued that approval would be distinct from other applications since the Parke-Bernet building uniquely occupied an entire city block.

When asked about the tower’s needed zoning waivers, Sillerman added that when the City enacted the code section that allowed zoning waivers for designated buildings, the intent was to make a developer “whole” because designation restricted as-of-right changes.

When the meeting opened up to Landmarks’ comments, Commissioner Margery Perlmutter flatly declared that Rosen’s team failed to justify how approval would not set a dangerous precedent. Summarizing, she said that Rosen’s team offered only that the Parke-Bernet building occupied an entire city block, and that was “simply not enough.” Perlmutter noted that other historic districts contain full-block buildings, and she could see the same argument stretched to a full block of similarly designed townhouses.

Perlmutter then indicated her strong disagreement with Sillerman’s position on the zoning waiver. If the intent was to make an owner “whole,” Perlmutter argued, “there would be no reason for air rights.” Commissioners Richard Olcott and Joan Gerner agreed that Rosen failed to justify the zoning waiver since the restoration of the Parke-Bernet building would not merit 26 additional stories. Gerner and Commissioner Christopher Moore set a limit on the addition to between two to five stories.

Commissioner Libby Ryan, noting she was not a trained architect, said her issues rested with scale, height and the “severe” materials. Others told Foster to “rethink” the mansard roof proposed for the Parke-Bernet building, with Olcott calling it “alien.” Several commissioners said they would approve the restoration plan for the Parke-Bernet building, if Rosen submitted it alone.

Only Commissioner Jan Hird Pokorny supported Foster’s design without change. Pokorny passed around a sketch of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, commenting that history shows that the two buildings can exist together.

Chair Robert Tierney ended the discussion by calling Foster’s design “brilliant,” but the arguments for the tower “entirely unpersuasive.” Tierney encouraged Rosen and Foster to return with another proposal.

LPC: 980 Madison Avenue (07-2265 & 07-2266) (Jan. 16, 2007).

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