Former Tammany Hall gets $57.5M for renovation

The former home of New York's political machine is being renovated to house office space and retail.

The former home of New York’s political machine is being renovated to house office space and retail.

By Sabina Mollot

The planned transformation of the former Tammany Hall in Union Square into a retail/office building has just gotten a little closer to becoming reality with $57.5 million in financing.

RM Capital Management, a real estate and merchant banking firm, announced on Friday it had arranged to provide that amount in first mortgage and mezzanine construction financing on behalf of the building’s owner Reading International, Inc.

The landmarked building is being gut renovated to include a total of six stories that will have a glass-domed roof, and the space will be leased for retail and office purposes. Its new address will be 44 Union Square; originally it was 100 East 17th Street.

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Preservationists say it’s too late for landmarking of Union Square Park

Union Square Park on a recent afternoon (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

Union Square Park on a recent afternoon (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

By Maria Rocha-Buschel

As the Landmarks Preservation Commission began addressing decades worth of backlog last Thursday, representatives for preservation groups expressed surprising opposition to the designation of Union Square Park as a city scenic landmark.

Jack Taylor, speaking on behalf of the Union Square Community Coalition, and Kelly Carroll of the Historic Districts Council opposed the proposed landmarking.

Taylor said in his testimony that landmarking the park as it is today would be a “historical travesty” and he noted that the idea would have had much more support if the LPC had followed through with the landmarking after a public hearing in 1977.

Since then, though, the park has been modified to the point that Taylor said it doesn’t resemble the location of various historical events, including the first Labor Day that was celebrated there in 1882. He said that in 2005, there was a deliberate effort on the part of the city and then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg that drastically changed the nature of the north plaza.

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Preservationists oppose landmark deadline bill

By Sabina Mollot

A bill pending in the City Council that would impose strict deadlines on applications for property landmark status has drawn concern from preservation groups who are blasting it as having a “do or die” policy. This is because any projects that aren’t decided upon by deadline would be barred from reconsideration for five years.

The bill, known as Intro 775, had a hearing in the Council on Wednesday with many speakers scheduled, but there wasn’t a vote on it. If passed, the Landmarks Preservation Commission would have to hold a public hearing on any potentially landmarked property or scenic landmark within 180 days of it going on the calendar and then make a decision on its status within 180 days of the hearing.

Historic districts up for designation would have to be discussed at a hearing within a year after being put on the calendar, with the LPC given a year after that to come to a decision.

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Commission shoots down shell for former Tammany Hall

Rendering of the proposed shell dome, which would have raised the height of the old Tammany Hall building by two stories (Rendering by David Ettinger and Wei Lee, BKSK Architects)

Rendering of the proposed shell dome, which would have raised the height of the old Tammany Hall building by two stories (Rendering by David Ettinger and Wei Lee, BKSK Architects)

By Sabina Mollot

The plan to add a shell-shaped glass dome onto the old Tammany Hall Building in Union Square has been turned down by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. It was during a hearing that took place on Tuesday, November 25, when the Commission declined to approve the rooftop addition for the recently landmarked building. However, the LPC left the door open for the applicant, the architectural firm BKSK, to submit another proposal — and a revised design is already in the works.

Following the hearing, BKSK’s lead partner on the dome project, Todd Poisson, said the firm is hoping to meet with the Commission’s chair informally in January to discuss it and then present it again to the entire Commission.

On the new design, he would only say, “We’re really excited about it.” He noted how the chair had said the building as it stands now “begs for enhancement.”

“Architecturally speaking, it’s a modest building. It’s Neo-Georgian but it’s not the greatest example of Neo-Georgian the city has to offer.”

The dome was intended to create room for around 20,000 square feet of office space. Half of that would have been in the newly created space while the rest would be in the existing structure. Along with the dome, which would have replaced the current slate roof and raised the building’s height by two stories, other proposed changes to the property include removing the theater, restoring the storefront infill, replacing signage and adding windows and a new entrance.

Poisson, who’d given testimony alongside partner Harry Kendall, later acknowledged, in an interview with Town & Village, the “range of opinions” from the Commission on why the proposal hadn’t gotten the green light.

“There was concern about our removal of the existing hipped roof,” he conceded, “and that the proposed replacement was not quite in harmony yet with the rest of the building.” But, he added, “They were intrigued by the proposal’s symbolic content.”

The content he was referring to was inspired by Tammany, the Native American chief of the Lenape. Poisson said the symbol of Tammany’s clan was a turtle, which was from a creation myth of a great turtle rising from the sea and creating land and putting mud on its shell. The idea behind the shell concept at the property, said Poisson, was to “re-brand” Tammany as not just a name synonymous with a corrupt political machine but the chief who helped develop peaceful relations with the European settlers.

“Early colonists use Chief Tammany as a uniquely American symbol and many Tammany societies sprang up,” he said. “The height of irony is that the only Tammany society to make it into the 20th century is Tammany Hall, only to be known for its corruption. We’d like to remind people of the story no one remembers.”

However at the November hearing, not everyone was moved by the historical reference. The few speakers who came to give testimony in support of the proposed alteration were outnumbered by over a dozen in opposition of it, with most saying they thought the contemporary design was inappropriate.

One in the latter group was Jack Taylor of the Union Square Community Coalition. Taylor had been involved in the USCC’s fight for the landmark designation of the building, which was finally approved last year after 29 years of consideration. At the hearing, he argued that the current hipped attic roof of the building, which is opposite Union Square Park’s East Side at East 17th Street, “is so visible that it defines the contours of the building.”

Removing it, he said, “would be to demolish a protected architectural element of the designated structure.” The building, he continued, had been designed to look like the Georgian-inspired architecture of the old Federal Hall on Wall Street. Federal Hall, where George Washington took his oath of office, also had a hipped attic roof.

Others who either gave testimony in person or via written statement against the dome proposal were Council Member Rosie Mendez, the Historic Districts Council, Community Board 5, Gramercy Neighborhood Associates and the New York Landmarks Conservancy.

Rendering of dome design from the side (Rendering by David Ettinger and Wei Lee, BKSK Architects)

Rendering of dome design from the side (Rendering by David Ettinger and Wei Lee, BKSK Architects)

In support of the plan however was Jennifer Falk, executive director of the Union Square Partnership, who gave her testimony in person. She later explained that she did so because the building was very much in need of attention, and the BKSK plan would have added something “bold” to the roof while restoring the rest of the property.

In a written statement, she said, “We applaud BKSK Architects’ bold design, which complements the history of Union Square as a vital and active, contemporary civic space. The removal of the overabundant existing signage, as well as the slate, mansard roof will greatly improve the overall look of this highly-visible property. The streamlined signage plan is simple and elegant, and the addition of a glass-domed roof provides a contemporary element while honoring the building’s Colonial Revival-style.”

Falk added that the USP looks forward to seeing how the design evolves.

Taylor, meanwhile, said he couldn’t help but point out that while the USP supported the new roof, it didn’t lend its support to the landmarking effort.

“For the first time in my memory, which goes back to the days of when the BID and the LDC (now the Union Square Partnership) were first formed in the 1980s, it’s a reaction to a landmark issue, a preservation issue,” he said. “Which,” he added, “the Partnership, as now it’s called, has never spoken anything about. And now there’s a reaction to an issue involving preservation and landmarking and of course it’s on the wrong side.”

In response, a spokesperson for the USP said the Partnership had been in support of the designation. However, since the effort wasn’t facing opposition once the building owner decided to support a designation, the organization didn’t feel it was necessary to send anyone to testify.

Other people who testified in support of the dome included Barry Benepe, co-founder of the Union Square Greenmarket, and Margaret Cotter, president of Liberty Theaters and the building’s owner.

Along with needing the LPC’s blessing to move forward with a plan to create office space, Cotter would also require a special use variance to build the dome. Poisson said this is because the eastern most portion of the property falls into a different zone than the rest of the building, and the eastern zone is residential.

Letters to the Editor, Dec. 4

Cartoon by Jim Meadows

Cartoon by Jim Meadows

First comes ‘de-calendaring,’ then demolition

On Tuesday, State Senator Brad Hoylman sent a letter to New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan in response to the proposed LPC “de-calendaring” of potential landmarks:

Dear Chair Srinivasan:

I write to express my serious concern over the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission’s (LPC) proposed “de-calendaring” of potential landmark sites throughout the city, including 14 sites in my Senate District, and strongly urge that the LPC reconsider this course of action.

I do not believe that the LPC has allowed for sufficient public input on such a drastic action and I fear that removing properties from the calendar may place many vulnerable potential landmarks at risk. Last year, after receiving notification that a former automobile showroom designed by Frank Lloyd Wright at 430 Park Avenue in my district was under consideration as a landmark, the owners soon thereafter demolished the property literally in the middle of the night, thereby robbing New Yorkers of an important part of our city’s historic and cultural heritage.

I am concerned that once LPC removes the proposed properties from the calendar, thus removing the protections that this preliminary designation imparts, the same fate will befall these properties and they, too, will be demolished with absolutely no recourse provided to the public.

Instead, the LPC should hold public hearings on the properties and carefully and deliberately consider each one on the merits of the proposed landmark, rather than on the length of time it has been on the LPC’s calendar.

It would be an indelible stain on New York City’s collective conscience for these historic properties to have survived so long, only to be lost to an administrative “clearing out” of longstanding calendared properties. The Commission should delay the scheduled December 9 vote and review each property through the normal landmark process to allow preservationists, community members and property owners time to review and comment on proposed actions.

Sincerely,

Brad Hoylman
State Senator,
27th District

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T&V Synagogue gets landmarked

Town & Village Synagogue (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

Town & Village Synagogue (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

By Maria Rocha-Buschel

After being calendared by the Landmarks Preservation Commission for the last 50 years, the wait at Town & Village Synagogue is finally over. The East 14th Street building was officially landmarked last Tuesday, and T&V president Marianna Mott Newirth said that the community is happy with the commission’s compromise in their decision.

The need for compromise came from the fact that the synagogue is actually made up of two different structures — the original façade and the back part of the building that was added later — and the synagogue’s community was opposed to landmarking the entire building because of the difficulties involved with getting approval from the LPC for renovations. As a result, the landmark status applies only to the façade of the building.

“(The commission) is mainly concerned about what is visible so clearly back building isn’t part of that,” she said. “They agreed that the back was built much later and has nothing to do with the original structure.”

Many members of the synagogue were wary of landmarking because of how it would affect necessary renovations for the building. Since the back part of the building wasn’t landmarked and the same restrictions don’t apply, work that needs to be done there won’t be a problem, but Newirth noted that there won’t be much change in their process anyway: it’s been calendared for so long that it’s almost like the property’s been landmarked the whole time anyway.

“Our original argument against landmarking was that it would delay steps on going forward and that happened, so we have to pay extra now,” she said. “In the grand scheme of things, it’s not that big a deal. It just means going forward we have to put more thought into timeline and factor in the extra time to get LPC approval.”

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T&V Synagogue leaders don’t want landmark status

Town & Village Synagogue on East 14th Street (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

Town & Village Synagogue on East 14th Street (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

By Maria Rocha-Buschel
Although Town & Village Synagogue on East 14th Street is currently being considered for landmarking by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, the community most affected by the effort isn’t particularly enthusiastic about the prospect.

“We really don’t want the landmarking,” Synagogue President Marianna Mott Newirth said. “I’ll honor what their decision is but I don’t think the building merits landmarking. We take a position in preserving the community and we’ll have to go through all these hoops because of what they see from the street.”

Town & Village’s building has been on East 14th Street for 150 years, but the synagogue itself began elsewhere, so the physical manifestation for the congregation is not the most important aspect of the community for many of its members.

One such member, Peter Cooper Village resident Henry Condell, wrote a letter to the Landmarks Preservation Commission, published in the May 8 issue of Town & Village, that urged the commission not to landmark the synagogue because many members believe that the continuation of their traditions are more important than the building where the traditions are practiced.

“Even without the threat of landmarking, making our building safe, accessible and adaptable to our needs has proved to be beyond our means,” Condell argued. “Moreover, the space, laid out almost 150 years ago, poses tremendous safety risks to our congregation. Despite our best efforts and consultations with several professionals, we have been unable to come up with a practical and affordable solution to making this antiquated building safe.”

Newirth noted that the landmarking effort has been going on for almost 40 years and even just being under consideration has affected the synagogue’s ability to make the necessary repairs on their building. “Even just being calendared, if there’s anything that affects the façade we need to go through the LPC,” Newirth said. “There’s work on the roof that can’t be done because we’re being considered for landmarking. Those onion domes, which are one of the main reasons for the landmarking, are exceedingly leaky and of course that’s what everyone sees. But that’s one of the parts that needs to be fixed yesterday. And even now, our hands our tied. That’s a prime example of how being landmarked would cause delays.”

As a compromise, both Newirth and Condell have said that if landmarking does go through, they want to make a distinction between the front part of the building, which includes the historic façade and the main sanctuary, and the back part of the building, which encompasses the kitchen and office spaces that get used for various programs not necessarily related to their religious services. Per this distinction, they are hoping that only the front part of the building be considered for landmarking.

Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh submitted testimony in favor of the landmarking but also made the distinction between the two parts of the building, based on feedback from constituents who are members of the synagogue, and specified that only the front part of the building should be landmarked. He noted in his testimony that “the building in the back of the lot was not part of the original plan and serves various, newer purposes” and is not architecturally significant.

“We serve our membership but we also serve our greater community, people who are not Jewish,” Newirth said. “The people who were most vocal about landmarking our building have never stepped through our doors and never even knew there was a back building. I can completely understand (the architectural significance of the façade) and we’re not interested in ruining that but we are interested in enhancing what we have so our members can get the most out of our services.”

The LPC hosted a public hearing at the end of March about the proposed landmarking and kicked off a month of public feedback throughout April, but Newirth said that she isn’t sure how long they’ll be waiting for a response. She said that it might even be possible that they’ll have to go through the whole process again because, since the city’s administration has recently changed, a new chair of the commission was just appointed last week.