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Testimony of the Real Estate Board of New York to the Landmarks Preservation Commission on the Proposed Designation of Benjamin Hotel, Hotel Lexington, Shelton Hotel, the Graybar Building, and 125 Park Avenue
July 19, 2016
The Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) is a trade association with 17,000 members comprised of commercial and residential owners, builders, brokers, managers, and other real estate professionals in New York.
We would like to offer our observations and comments on the five calendared items — Benjamin (formerly the Beverly) Hotel, Hotel Lexington, Shelton Hotel, The Graybar Building, and 125 Park Avenue — which are included in the Greater East Midtown (GEM) rezoning study area. These properties were calendared during the public review process for the initial East Midtown Rezoning proposal. As you may know, we commissioned a study entitled Icons, Placeholders & Leftovers: Midtown East Report that was conducted by the architectural historian firm CivicVisions. The study looked at the many buildings proposed for designation by a number of preservationist groups, including these five calendared properties. Our report found that the truly meritorious buildings have already been designated and the ones proposed had little to no architectural or historical merit for the designation of these five properties. Thus, we continue to oppose their designation.
In revisiting the rezoning of East Midtown, an East Midtown Steering Committee (EMSC) — comprised of Community Board members, as well as representatives of civic groups, the real estate industry, business improvement districts and labor representatives and chaired by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Council Member Dan Garodnick — was established to develop a framework for the rezoning of GEM.
One objective was to identify properties within the study area eligible for landmarks designation and to designate them prior to the conclusion of the public review process for the rezoning proposal. In this regard, the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the City should be commended for properly folding preservation into the planning process—a sound approach that we have long called for.
Last month, the LPC presented their research to the EMSC which provided a helpful and insightful historic framework for the periods of development in GEM. The presentation included buildings that were already designated and the criteria used to evaluate the additional buildings that are eligible from each era. Also, extremely useful for today’s public hearing is the concise summaries of the individual buildings that have been made available on LPC’s website.
As noted above, REBNY commissioned its own study of properties proposed for calendaring by other stakeholders as part of the initial Midtown East rezoning. It concluded that the existing designated landmarks, including one historic district, fully captured the architecturally and culturally significant buildings in the district. Other recommended properties (including the five calendared properties being heard today) did not rise to the level of historical significance, did not enhance the existing designations or the periods of development in Midtown East, and therefore should not be designated. The Commission’s latest research presentation does not provide new or compelling reasons for us to reconsider the conclusions of our initial report regarding the designation of these five properties.
The three hotels on Lexington Avenue lack architectural and historic significance and seem to be included here for other reasons. Their presence on what has been called “Hotel Alley” is interesting, but not a historically compelling reason to designate these three properties. Ironically, the high cost associated with maintaining a landmark and their lack of modern amenities may result in these hotels being converted to residential uses.
The Beverly Hotel’s profile; its aesthetic appeal to other artists and its characterization as “one of Emery Roth’s most successful creations” are inadequate reasons to elevate this property to landmark status and does not rival the landmark Waldorf Astoria.
Likewise, the favorable notice from critics and historians of the Hotel Lexington is neither the kind of ringing endorsement for this hotel as the finest example of its type or period nor do these notices present compelling reasons for landmark designation. The descriptions of these two hotel properties seem to be stretching for a good reason to defend designation.
The Shelton Hotel may be the best of the three hotels under consideration. However, its design and history suggest that this 90 plus year old property’s inherent deficiencies in its masonry construction will continue unabated. These persistent and unavoidable problems have led to a long history of repairs and replacement of lintels and terra cotta ornaments and other original features. Designation will make this work more time consuming and costly and is an unreasonable burden to impose on an owner for a building whose original fabric has been altered and that lacks merit.
The Graybar and 125 Park Avenue buildings, two pre-World War II office buildings represent good office buildings but not great ones. The great ones—Chrysler, Chanin, Bowery Saving Bank, and the Fuller Building—have all been designated.
The Graybar Building stands out for the sheer volume of the office space within it, incorporating the massing of Terminal City. Yet, the quality of this building pales in comparison to the Chanin Building or the Bowery Savings Bank. Reflecting the massing of buildings in the Terminal City era is an interesting feature. However, identifying an interesting aspect of the building and linking it to a period of development which is already well-represented by existing landmarks is not a compelling reason to designate this building.
125 Park Avenue also does not meet the standards of an exceptional building meriting landmarks designation. Notably absent from the AIA Guide to New York City, the building has a high streetwall design (as a result of a variance) common for buildings erected before the 1916 Zoning Resolution, and its cubic Beaux Arts design was old fashioned even before it was finished—an unpardonable sin in up-to date Manhattan, according to our report. This building did not attract the attention of the authors of the AIA guide nor is it a must see architectural icon of New York City, such as the Chrysler Building.
In the absence of a compelling basis for landmark designation, we are a concerned that granting this good, but not great, building landmark status would foreclose forever the rare opportunity to provide significant transit and public realm improvements on this site. Preserving the opportunity for a transformative project on this site, by not designating this less-than-worthy building, would advance the important planning goals of revitalizing Midtown East.
125 Park Avenue fronts on two wide streets and stands directly above the southern terminus of the 4,5,6,7 42nd Street subway mezzanine and the 4,5,6 platform. It is an ideal and unmatched location for a new office building to revitalize the Greater East Midtown neighborhood and improve transit conditions in Grand Central.
In the context of the Greater East Midtown plan, the designation of 125 Park Avenue would be a serious setback for the effectiveness of the plan.
Thank you for the opportunity to contribute to the discussion on this process which is important from a preservation and planning perspective.