Alfred Taubman Plans for ‘Art Mall’ on Top of Sotheby’s Fortress

A. Alfred Taubman, chairman of Sotheby’s Holdings Inc., has hatched a plan to build a “high-class art and antiques mall” around an enlarged, consolidated Sotheby’s on the site of its current headquarters at York Avenue and 72nd Street, according to a source close to the auction house. If everything goes as planned, the new Sotheby’s would be open by 2000, just two years behind the new Christie’s auction house at Rockefeller Center.

Sotheby’s needs a zoning variance from the city in order to proceed; it filed an application with the Department of City Planning on Jan. 29. The application specifies only that the additional 229,323 square feet would be used to consolidate and expand its headquarters. (The auction house currently has three adjunct sites: office space at East 76th Street and 980 Madison Avenue, and storage space on East 111th Street.) A source told The Observer that long-range plans include attracting art galleries and antiques dealers to the site. The application, however, makes no mention of those plans.

Richard Barth, director of the Manhattan office of the Department of City Planning, said that the Sotheby’s application “would likely be granted by the end of this year” once the application is complete and a seven-month public review process has been fulfilled. If granted, the variance would be a reversal of a 1990 zoning change permitting the construction of a 27-story residential tower above the five-story Sotheby’s base, a never-realized effort by Mr. Taubman.

Mr. Barth also noted that subleasing space to retailers was compatible with the land usage change that Sotheby’s is applying for, and that such a plan should be reflected in the current application.

“It is our understanding that Sotheby’s would be using the space entirely for themselves,” said Mr. Barth, “and we will make sure that the project description in the application is accurate and complete prior to certification.”

Mr. Taubman did not return calls. But Matthew Weigman, a Sotheby’s spokesman, said, “Sotheby’s is planning to consolidate all of our operations under one roof.” When asked about the retail shops, he said, “That is not part of our current plan.”

The aggressive Michigan-based real estate mogul, known as the man who invented the modern shopping mall (Short Hills, N.J., and Stamford, Conn.), excited the auction game when he took over the New York branch of Sotheby’s in 1983 and created one of the most heated rivalries of the 1980’s. Five years ago, he set out on a wild goose chase through the commercial caverns of midtown, looking for a grand new home with window-shopping traffic, only to end up right where he started–at a stolid, squat former Kodak warehouse and film processing center in the outer reaches of the Upper East Side–while Christie’s struck retail gold. Now, Sotheby’s is seeking to exercise its right to purchase the fortresslike building it has occupied for 18 years and to build six more stories of commercial space above it. The structure would have a new York Avenue entrance in the middle of the block and a new look: a largely glass facade with champagne-colored metal panels.

Over the past five years, Sotheby’s has departed from its traditional role as a wholesale auctioneer and expanded into retail sales by purchasing well-known and established art galleries. Sotheby’s owns André Emmerich Gallery and Jeffrey Deitch’s Deitch Projects, the avant-garde showplace that features the work of kitschmeister Jeff Koons. Sotheby’s also has a business relationship with Acquavella Galleries, with which it owns a percentage of the estate of the former Pierre Matisse Gallery. Those galleries will be told to move to the York Avenue site, presently Siberia on the art market’s map of choice spots, according to a source. Presumably, it is thought that other galleries would follow suit because of the luster of the galleries already dotting the Sotheby’s crown.

André Emmerich said that he had heard “vague references” to the Sotheby’s mall scheme, but that he had not been told to move into the space. “Sotheby’s new building may make even more of an art destination out of Sotheby’s than it already is,” Mr. Emmerich speculated. “The difference is that now people go there twice a year or however often art in their special interest is shown and exhibited and sold. If there were more exhibitions appealing to this or that special-interest group, traffic would increase, and it would become more of a destination.”

Louis Miller, a managing director for Insignia-Edward S. Gordon Company, said Christie’s also has the right under the terms of its lease to sublease portions of its space to retailers. At present, however, no such plans exist, according to Taggerty Patrick, a Christie’s spokesman.

Support for York Avenue?

If successful, Sotheby’s will be able to solve two of its thorniest problems. One is space. The auction house currently occupies 162,440 square feet on the York Avenue site, which is devoted to regular auction sales, exhibition, administrative office and storage. The proposed building will have 369,323 square feet. According to the application, the proposed expansion would increase the exhibit space from its current 25,000 square feet to about 75,000 square feet. The remainder of the expansion program would provide increased storage and administration space. The application goes on to explain that this would allow Sotheby’s to: “(1) Provide adequate time and space for the exhibits; (2) create adequate facilities at its main building to display and store art; (3) accommodate its clientele in a high-quality manner; and (4) minimize its operating costs and financial risks inherent in current operating conditions.”

Sotheby’s second–and bigger–problem is location. In 1980, when the firm moved its headquarters from Madison Avenue to York Avenue, many wags predicted its downfall. Buoyed by the art market boom of the 1980’s, Sotheby’s triumphed, anyway. Still, Sotheby’s had expressed interest in sites that ranged from the old Alexander’s building on East 59th Street to the New York Coliseum site on Columbus Circle, and was even considering moving into the old B. Altman building on Fifth Avenue. In fact, the Sotheby’s application before the city planning department states that the search took 10 percent of its chief executive’s time. And now the competition will be sitting pretty in Rockefeller Center. But by moving in other tenants, Mr. Taubman is wagering that remaining on York Avenue will be viable. What’s more, the company’s application argues, “Sotheby’s has reviewed with its top clients the possibility of moving and has received overwhelming support for this location.”

Still, according to Mr. Miller, “At the end of the day, York Avenue wasn’t their first choice.”

Sotheby’s is banking on the fact that the community also approves of the location for the larger facility. Last November, even before they completed their application to the city planning department, representatives of the auction house met with members of Community Board 8 to allay their fears about an increase in the volume of traffic to the area. As soon as an application is certified by the city planning department, the community board has 60 days in which to voice its opposition to the plan. “While the design of the proposed building would increase the size of Sotheby’s auction/sales room,” the application states hopefully, “it is not expected to increase auction attendees.”

Hedi White, chair of Community Board 8’s Sotheby’s subcommittee, for one, is sold on the project. Cautioning that the board has still to take an official position on the matter, Ms. White spoke glowingly of the new Sotheby’s, referring to key executives by their first names.

“I would say that, on balance, I am in favor of this,” she said. Ms. White, who works in the area, said, “I think Sotheby’s adds some real vitality to the area.”

“A lot of our concerns had to do with the existing traffic congestion on the cul-de-sac of East 72nd Street,” she explained, “We felt good that the project is going to go a long way to significantly alleviate that.”

Namely, additional loading bays for the trucks and less traffic between 72nd Street and the storage facility on 111th Street. One of the loading bays will contain an elevator that will lift the truck to the floor on which the merchandise is to be shown.

Ms. White said that she was not aware that Sotheby’s was intending to also turn its new building into an enclosed mall with antique shops and art galleries. But she said that she did not think that would be a problem.

Ever So Slightly Larger Than Christie’s

But, of course, the most pressing issue is the fact that Christie’s Inc. took over a majority of the market share from Sotheby’s last year, though Sotheby’s continues to be more profitable. It’s only fitting that the proposed Sotheby’s site is slated to be ever so slightly larger than the new Christie’s already under construction in Rockefeller Center. And the new Sotheby’s–preliminarily designed by the architectural firm Kohn, Pedersen, Fox Associates P.C.–seems to have taken a leaf from its rival’s plans. The granite facade of the current building will be taken down and replaced by one of mostly glass, allowing people to look in from the street at what’s going on inside, much like the new Christie’s building. The entrance to Sotheby’s will be shifted to the middle of the block, at the base of a dramatic three-bay glass atrium rising the full height of the York Avenue facade. As you might expect to find in any suburban mall, there will be the omnipresent bank of escalators sweeping art lovers to the upper floors of the 10-story building.

Christie’s intends to begin moving into its new space by the end of the year. There were some delays caused by problems with Bennis & Reissman, the site’s project manager, which is currently under investigation for bid rigging, and A.J. Construction, the contractor. Bennis & Reissman was terminated in January. A.J. Construction is likely to be terminated soon, according to sources. Ms. Patrick said that Christie’s is “reviewing bids from a number of vendors for the second and final phase of the project.”

Whether Mr. Taubman will be able to marry his skills as a suburban mall impresario with the sophisticated and fickle art business of the 1990’s remains to be seen. According to Sotheby’s: Bidding for Class , an insightful history of the firm by Robert Lacey that is being published by Little, Brown & Company in May, Mr. Taubman’s shopping malls are the tops. “Attention to the minutest detail marked the shopping malls that Taubman began building in California in the early 1960’s.” He adds: “It was Taubman’s art to mold this potentially chaotic area into a department store of his own, enrolling the correct blend of Gaps and cookie stores and Victoria’s Secrets.”

But will the patrons of Sotheby’s follow Mr. Taubman’s lead? Mr. Lacey claims, “Everyone comes together in the food court.”