Tower Adjacent to Park Avenue Christian Church Approved after Changes

Rendering of new tower adjacent to Park Avenue Christian Church. Image credit: CityLand

Rendering of new tower adjacent to Park Avenue Christian Church. Image credit: CityLand

Revised proposal would allow three-dimensional perception of existing church, schist facade at base would acknowledge annex to be demolished. On January 13, 2015, the Landmarks Preservation Commission voted to award a Certificate of Appropriateness to a proposal for 1010 Park Avenue in the Park Avenue Historic District. The plan calls for the demolition of an existing six-story 1963 annex, to the Park Avenue Christian Church and the construction of 13-story tower, with three additional setback floors and a prominent bulkhead. The annex, though designated as “no style” in the district’s designation report, does retain a portion of the church’s original 1911 rectory fabric.

At the October 21 hearing, project architects from the firm of Beyer Blinder Belle presented a plan for a limestone-clad building, rising to 13 stories at the streetwall. The demolition of the annex was criticized by representatives of elected officials Liz Krueger and Dan Garodnick, the local community boards, preservationist organizations and representatives of an adjoining co-op. Members of Park Avenue Christian Church testified in favor of the proposal for raising necessary funds for the church, and the plan was also supported by the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

Because of the extent of public testimony, Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan postponed the applicants’ response, and commissioner comments on the proposal, until its meeting on December 2, 2014. Kramer Levin attorney Paul Selver, representing the applicants, asserted that the annex was an “undistinguished brick box” which did not relate to adjoining buildings, and had already been determined by Landmarks to not contribute to the historic district, while the proposal would read as a “contemporary interpretation of a classic Park Avenue apartment house.” Selver said the development would serve to preserve the district’s sense of place, and to keep the district “vital.”

Architect Jack Beyer responded to testimony and comments. He stated that the district was characterized by a variety of building heights, and the proposal fell within the bulk parameters of the district’s apartment buildings. He noted that the annex’s demolition would allow more light into the church’s rear apse. A skylight would allow light into the stained-galls windows on the church’s south façade. He said that maintaining the building’s consistent streetwall was necessary, and if the new building were set back behind the existing annex’s facade, it would constitute an “aberration” in the district, as well as run contrary to its zoning. He also said using the facade for residential purposes would require that it be significantly altered to allow in sufficient light. Beyer provided examples of apartment towers near or adjoining religious structures, which he said illustrated that churches and towers in close proximity to one another were “not unusual” in the City. The project would also modify the church, creating a new ADA-compliant entrance at the front.

Commissioner John Gustafsson said that respect for the church was an essential component of any finding of appropriateness for any development at the site, and the proposal could be modified to preserve a portion of the Church’s south sidewall. Chair Srinivasan that buildings in the district were built at the streetwall by custom, but that zoning would allow for some recesses. Srinivasan also expressed reluctance to counteract the commission’s early determination that the annex was non-contributing. Commissioners Adi Shamir-Baron and Michael Goldblum also expressed concerns about the proposal’s height. Commissioner Goldblum commented that a slimmer tower would retain views of the Church from southern vantages. Commissioner Shamir-Baron commented that the original conception of the church included a rectory, and that the entirety of the campus needed to be considered.

Chair Srinivasan asked the applicants to explore alternatives that would retain the annex facade, and also look at setbacks that would retain three-dimensional views of the church.

When the applicants returned in 2015, the proposal maintained the same essential height and bulk, rising to a total of 210 feet, but alterations were made to the form and cladding. The base would be clad in schist, largely salvaged from the demolished annex, matching the fabric of the church. The new building’s base would be indented at the north, allowing the church’s southern corner to read distinctly. Beyer said the revised design would acknowledge the site’s history and the ensemble of the Church campus and the recesses would allow for “a more complete picture” of the church.  Above the base, approximately one-third of the primary faced would be recessed, with a depth of six feet above the recesses would allow for “a more complete picture” of the church while maintaining a consistent street wall and adhering to zoning. Beyer said the limestone windows in schist-faced base would recall ecclesiastical tracery.

The new building’s north side façade, which would be visible over the church, would be simplified, so as to not distract from the primacy of the front facade. Windows would be aluminum above the base.

Architect Michael Wetstone presented a series of images illustrating why the existing façade was impractical for re-use, and would have to be substantially altered if retained. A skylight would allow sunlight, illuminating the stained-glass windows on the church’s south facade. The annex’s floor plans, floor heights, gable and windows would require the developers to do “extraordinary handstands,” according to Beyer, to preserve a non-contributing building.

Paul Selver said the proposal was “within the continuum of solutions that are appropriate,” and that any plan that incorporated the annex would be unacceptable to the Church, and to the developer, Extell.

Commissioner Adi Shamir-Baron reiterated her conviction that the whole development should be set back from the street wall, but accepted that such an action was prohibited by zoning. Commissioner Goldblum stated that, though the applicants had not made a convincing case for the appropriateness of the 33-foot tall penthouse, he could vote in favor of the project, though he believed it could “be a lot better.” Commissioner Christopher Moore determined that the recesses and the schist facing at the base had greatly improved the development’s appropriateness. Commissioner Diana Chapin commended the revised design for “opening up views of the church,” and for working to better relate to the church at the base. Commissioner Gustafsson found revisions appropriate for preserving the “dimensionality” of the church. Commissioner Roberta Washington said any appropriate plan should include the salvaged facade of the existing annex.

Chair Srinivasan led a vote for appropriateness, and states that the site required “a sensitive and nuanced response,” and the alterations to the plan allowed the church to reclaim its prominence on the block. Srinivasan asked the applicants to work with Landmarks staff on a new handicapped-accessible entrance, preferring an easily reversed ramp to the creation of a new entrance. Commissioner Washington cast the only dissenting vote.

LPC: 1010 Park Avenue, Manhattan (16-4381) (January 13, 2015) (Architects: Beyer Blinder Bell).

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

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