A scandal may be brewing at New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. The LPC has never had a reputation for being very objective or easy to work with, but now its integrity is being called into question as preservationists are accusing both a current and former official of colluding with mega-developer Steven Roth of Vornado Realty to allow a controversial interior modification to sail through the commission unimpeded.
The building in question is 510 Fifth Avenue, a short modernist building that the New York Times holds up alongside icons like Lever House and the Seagram Building. Vornado eventually got permission to make interior modifications to the building, which surprised and angered many preservationists. The building’s interior is plainly visible through the wall of transparent glass, and was itself landmarked just months before Vornado was granted permission to alter it. Modernism is about the little things, and asking the LPC to puncture two doors into the building’s otherwise unbroken Fifth Ave. façade and rotate its prominent escalator was a tall order for such a small building.
Most buyers would have assumed that the building’s landmark designation meant that it could not easily been subdivided and more profitably rented out to two tenants, but not Steve Roth. Seeking to maximize its investment, Vornado hired former LPC Commissioner Meredith Kane to lobby the commission on the proposed project, and, according to recently released emails, it got a sort of conditional LPC approval before even acquiring the property.
And as it turns out, Steve Roth wasn’t content to just take hints about the project’s chances through intermediaries – he wanted to hear it straight from the horse’s mouth. On May 27, 2010, Kane wrote to current LPC Chair Robert Tierney:
Bob – we had a very productive meeting yesterday with Mark, Sarah and Bill Neeley on 510 Fifth (with Roger Duffy and TJ Gottesdiener from SOM, for Vornado) – thank you for the time and effort that you are all giving.
I just had a call from Steve Roth, who is facing a drop-dead deadline of next week in his deal to buy the property, which he is working to extend. What I think he’d most like is a little bit of hand-holding directly from you – he won’t believe it when it comes from me! – that even though we have a lot of detail to work through, and you will need staff and the Commissioners to be satisfied with the proposals, that we are going to “get through” this project. Is it possible for us to have a hand-holding call with him later today? You can caveat it as much as you need to, but I think it would go a long way on a purely relationship basis if you are willing to speak with him directly. Please let me know if you’re around, and if we can do this today – or if not today, perhaps Tuesday? Many thanks!
Tierney’s response is mysteriously redacted, but he told the Times that he “never made the requested call to Mr. Roth.”
Regardless of what he said in response, the proposed changes passed the commission’s muster, and the whole exchange leaves you with the distinct impression that the LPC was bending over backwards to accomodate Vornado. The LPC regularly communicates with property owners and gives guidance on projects that will eventually come before the commission, but giving such attention to a prospective buyer seems like a dicier proposition.
Other projects judged by Tierney and the LPC commissioners have not fared so well. In the so-called “Gansevoort Market Historic District,” one developer wanted to put a twisty modern structure atop a low-slung brick warehouse in the Meatpacking District, but was rebuffed twice before the proposal was finally accepted. The first time it was rejected for being too tall, so they chopped off two stories, but then it was rejected a second time for the same reason, after which they lobbed off another eight feet.
The developer, Taconic Investment Partners, and the architect, Morris Adjmi, are both smalltime compared to REIT giant Vornado and storied modernist firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, whose 510 Fifth project passed the LPC gauntlet with no resistance, despite being both more architecturally significant and supposedly more protected in its historical designation.
In the case of 510 Fifth, Tierney told the New York Times that he approved the changes because “[u]ltimately, the building was originally designed for a specific use – banking – which was no longer practical.” But oddly enough, the fact that meatpacking is fare scarcer in New York nowadays than retail banking doesn’t seem to have stopped him from trying to keep the Meatpacking District from rising beyond the height of a late 19th century walk-up.
It is sometimes said that a good compromise leaves everyone unhappy, but that doesn’t mean that every time both parties are unhappy you have a good compromise. In the case of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, it could very well be that preservationists and developers are both right – truly historic buildings are not protected enough, and unimportant ones are protected too much. This status quo may have been tenable when the LPC’s unpredictability was chalked up to indecisive and arbitrary commissioners, but with these new allegations of big developer favoritism, the Landmarks Commission may finally be held to account for its capriciousness.