For months, the building was the talk of Carnegie Hill: a 209-foot-tall, 17-story tower that would rise like a middle finger in the face of the neighborhood’s Queen Anne row houses, brownstones and private schools, filling the cherished empty space above the one-story Citibank branch at 91st Street and Madison Avenue.
Its opponents raised an Upper East Side army and enlisted a $450-an-hour lawyer to fight it. Woody Allen got involved. So did Kevin Kline, and Bette Midler, and a whole host of prominent citizens, all the better to turn a run-of-the-mill case of the NIMBYs into fodder for The New York Times and “The Talk of the Town.”
Then, on Tuesday, June 13, a standing-room only crown gathered beneath the vaulted ceilings of the old Board of Estimate hearing room in City Hall, and heard Jennifer Raab, chairman of the city’s Landmark Preservation Commission, tell developer Cary Tamarkin what they wanted to hear:
The building must be cut down to size.
Ms. Raab announced that the board had decided unanimously that the building’s size, height and uniquely slender design was “inappropriate” for the Carnegie Hill Historic District. The audience, including Mr. Allen, who moved to the neighborhood last year, jumped to its feet and gave the board a long standing ovation.
Associates of Mr. Tamarkin said that the developer, who holds an architecture degree from Harvard University, was disappointed with the Landmarks Commission’s harsh assessment of his project, but that he’ll be coming back to try again, though not before he talks things through with his opponents in the community.
“We have to take some time to absorb what we heard, so that … the concerns of the community can be included in the redesign,” said Robert Davis, an attorney for the Tamarkin Company. “We expect that when we have the chance to think about it, we’ll want to consult with the community and members of preservation committee as partners in the process.”
“[Mr. Tamarkin] has nobody to blame but himself,” said Stephen Kass, an attorney for the building’s opponents. “He chose to overreach with this building, chose not to listen either to the community or the very many hints he received along the way from the commissioners.”
Mr. Kass said he is looking forward to hearing Mr. Tamarkin’s new plans. “In the past, they’ve not learned very well, so we’re hoping they learn the painful lesson.”
In later remarks at the meeting, several of the board members suggested the apartment building, designed by architect Charles Platt, be reduced to less than half its proposed size–six or seven stories–and altered in design to look less, well, midtown.
“The applicants are free to come back with a new proposal,” Ms. Raab said in an interview after the hearing, “but they need to respond to what the committee said, and not just cut off two floors.”
Woody Allen issued a statement following the meeting: “I thought Jennifer Raab and the board acted with enormous responsibility, not just to the Carnegie Hill community but to everyone in New York City.”
Community activists trumpeted the decision as proof that their complaints about the building, dismissed by Mr. Tamarkin as the usual neighborhood carping, were right all along. Cynics, like the source who cracked wise about all the “Woody Allen star- fucking by the reporters” at the landmarks hearing, implied that the opponents’ case wasn’t hurt any by their huge fortunes and famous names.
In the fall of 1998, concerned residents met for the first time at the Church of the Heavenly Rest on 90th Street and Fifth Avenue when they heard that Citigroup was selling the air rights atop the Citibank branch. Carol McFadden founded the CitiNeighbors Coalition of Historic Carnegie Hill to protest the development, and enlisted neighbors like artist Abe Hirschfeld, financier Dick Jenrette, actress Stockard Channing, socialites Carolina and Reinaldo Herrera and cartoonist William Hamilton. Ironically, Citigroup’s chairman, Sanford Weill, who donated millions of dollars to renovate Carnegie Hall, is also a Carnegie Hill resident but did nothing to support the cause.
And so the movement gathered momentum. Jurate Kazickas, the wife of former Deputy Treasury Secretary and current supermarket tabloid magnate Roger C. Altman, recruited opponents out of her social Rolodex.
Ms. Midler spoke movingly of the neighborhood before the Landmarks Commission. Mr. Kline pitched in with an impassioned speech in which he quoted Richard II .
Mr. Allen made a three-minute movie outlining their case, and even abandoned his typical reticence with the press to talk to reporters about the building, which he said threatened the pristine neighborhood where he shot his musical Everyone Says I Love You .
“It was serendipity that Woody Allen bought his house from Carol McFadden and threw himself into the fray in such a wonderful way,” said Jane Parshall, co-chairman of the CitiNeighbors Coaltion with Ms. McFadden and Ms. Kazickas.
Mr. Allen celebrated the film’s debut in mid-April, at a cocktail party fund-raiser at the home of Goldman Sachs & Company partner John Curtin and his wife Ann on East 92nd Street, attended by designer Adrienne Vittadini, TV host Katie Couric, former Massachusetts governor William Weld and about 60 other residents who coughed up at least $500 each. (The committee raised about $80,000 that night–but Mr. Kass costs $450 hour, said Ms. Parshall. “We have not raised enough,” she said. “We’re in the red.”)
All of that star wattage blind-sided the developers, Mr. Davis said.
“I’m not saying that the participation of Mr. Allen or Ms. Midler or any of the other celebrities changed the outcome,” Mr. Davis said. “What it did do is change the atmosphere in which the deliberations took place, heightening the level of scrutiny and at times distracting attention to the celebrities.”
“What star power does is that it calls attention to the issue in a big way as a big issue, an important issue,” said Lo van der Volk, president of the Carnegie Hill Neighbors Association. “I don’t think any star could have done it. I think the stars had to be passionate about their case.”
Ms. Raab, for her part, said the publicity hadn’t affected the committee’s deliberations at all. “Certainly we listened to the public testimony, but at the end of the day, we make the decision on the merits.”