Extensive Revisions Demanded for Canal Street Development

Rendering of 312 Canal Street. Image Credit: LPC.

Developers proposed to demolish five heavily altered 19th-century structures to make way for a new 8-story-plus-penthouse residential building with retail base. On June 6, 2017, Landmarks considered an application to redevelop five lots at 312 through 322 Canal Street in the Tribeca East Historic District. The five buildings were originally constructed in the 1820s, at two-and-a-half stories, but saw repeated additions, reductions and alterations throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, and currently stand at two stories. Little, if any, original historic fabric remains on the buildings’ exteriors. The site is located mid-block, near where Mercer Street intersects with Canal Street.

In 2011, the buildings’ owners, Mid Center Equities Associates, sought a permit to legalize work done to the buildings’ facades and storefronts. Landmarks did not find the work appropriate, and asked that revisions be made. The owners never returned to the Commission to legalize the work.

The property has multiple open violations from the Department of Buildings. The owners have also been the target of lawsuits from fashion designers who alleged that the properties were being used to sell counterfeit designer goods.

Architects Andy Vann, of the firm of Paul A. Castrucci, presented the plan for a new building replacing the existing structures, which would rise to eight stories at the streetwall, with a set-back penthouse and additional rooftop furniture. Vann argued that streetwall heights along this section of Canal Street were only consistent in their variation, and the area was characterized by the “architectural drama of difference.”  He said the proposed building was inspired by the brick store-and-loft buildings of the district, with their sculptural qualities, and deep, dramatic facades, as well as the rigorous internal repetitions common to classical architecture.

Existing and Proposed 312 Canal Street Renderings. Image Credit: LPC.

The front facade would be broken up into two distinct masses, as the face is unusually wide for the district at 102 feet. The eastern portion enclosing a stair tower would have more of a vertical arrangement, while the western section would be more rectangular. The facade’s posts and lintels would grow slimmer as the facade rose. Sixteen inches of facade depth would allow for an interplay of light and shadow similar to that historic cast-iron facades.  Dog-tooth brick accent panels and sandstone sills would contribute visual interest to the building. The stair tower portion of the facade was intended to recall the industrial heritage of Tribeca architecture. The designers decided to place the tower at the street front as “sculptural element.”

The facade would not be constructed of brick, but would be composed of custom-made panels of thin red brick veneer adhering to a concrete substrate. The facade would be prefabricated, and the joints from installation would be incorporated into the design to make them less noticeable. Vann noted that Tribeca had a history of technical innovation in building construction.

At the base, glass and steel storefronts would span the western expanse of the building, with the residential entrance located beneath the stair tower. A cornice would separate the storefronts from the upper levels.

The building would employ rigorously energy-efficient passive technology.

Manhattan Community Board 1’s Michael Levine read from a unanimous resolution recommending rejection of the proposal. The Community Board objected to the size of the building, the excessive expanse of glass at the base, the “monotonous” design, and its impact on one of the “last remaining eclectic streets” in the district. A representative of Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer said the “wholesale demolition” of five properties that are part of Tribeca’s development history would set a dangerous precedent. The representative said the proposal was “out of-context,” and would in no way enhance the district.

Multiple residents of the adjoining building at 45 Lispenard Street testified in opposition, condemning the proposal as out-of-scale and out-of-character. One residents denounced the applicant’s “egregious history” of “brazenly illegal work” and bad faith.  Consultant Marissa Marvelli, retained by residents of 45 Lispenard, argued that the proposal could possibly be appropriate for a corner lot, but not for “a shallow mid-block parcel.”

Author, monologist, and actor Eric Bogosian, a neighborhood resident, testified that the historic district was being transformed “by a hodge-podge” of modern architecture, and urged Landmarks to “slow down on the cheap ugly buildings in our lovely neighborhood.” Bogosian said the proposal added neither a substantial amount of residences or beauty to the neighborhood, and was not consistent with the “down-to-earth style” of Canal Street. The New York Landmarks Conservancy’s Andrea Goldwyn said the planned demolition was “troubling,” and the proposed development was “inappropriate.” Patrick Waldo, from the Historic Districts Council, testified that the proposal “disrupts the street’s low-rise scale, a survivor of pre-Civil War New York.” Landmarks Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan stated that Assembly Member Deborah Glick had also communicated her opposition to the proposal to the Commission.

The architect responded to the testimony, saying there was no aspect of the original elevation of the existing buildings remaining, that they were inconsistent with the district, and the proposed work was more appropriate for the site.

Landmarks Executive Director Sarah Carroll informed Commissioners that the existing buildings were not identified as having a specific style in the 1992 designation report, due to their substantial alterations. Counsel Mark Silberman stated that at the time of designation, some of the properties retained remnants of original Flemish bond brick on the second-story facades, but were “akin” to no-style buildings. Silberman added that the illegal work done to the properties, like the installation of roll-down gates and alterations to storefronts, was of a type common along Canal Street.

Chair Srinivasan said she could conceivably support the demolition of the existing structure, but that the proposed new building was inappropriate for the district and the site, and any new development required a different approach. She said the proposal height was “overwhelming” in the immediate context, and its design was “monolithic.”  She also criticized the “generic” storefront, which she found to recall that of a shopping mall.

Commissioner Diana Chapin concurred that demolition could be acceptable, but that the proposed building’s bulk was excessive, and said it did not engage in a dialogue with surrounding buildings. Commissioner Michael Goldblum said that, in the abstract, the project was “not a bad design,” but it was being proposed for “the wrong place.”  Goldblum said that, even though significantly modified, the existing building still read as five individual low-scale structures, and the memory of their scale should be retained even if demolished. He agreed that the storefront failed to relate to Canal Street. Commissioner Jeanne Lutfy said the “monotonous” design clashed with the “colorful and cacophonous” quality of Canal Street.

Commissioner Michael Devonshire said the proposal’s monolithic quality was “such a no-go, dog-won’t-hunt” threshold issue, he did not wish to address the other aspects of the proposal until a radically different design was presented. Devonshire also chastised the applicants for their “lack of respect” in failing to correct illegal work, and then seeking to gain the agency’s approval for demolition and a large development. He said granting a certificate would be unfair to all the applicants who complied with Landmarks regulations.

Chair Srinivasan did not call a vote, allowing the applicants to potentially return to the Commission with a revised proposal, but said that the plan’s “overarching concept” needed to be reconsidered.

LPC: 312-322 Canal Street, Manhattan (19-4744) (June 6, 2017) (Architects: Paul A. Castrucci, Architect).

By: Jesse Denno (Jesse is a full-time staff writer at the Center for NYC Law).

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