Community Boards

Socony Mobil Building:

1950′s Icon or Tin Can?

The Socony Mobil Building, the 42-story skyscraper which takes up the block between Lexington and Third avenues bounded by 41st and 42nd streets, is thought by some to be an icon of 1950′s architecture. Others view it as an oversized tin can. Community Board 6 weighed these diverging opinions at their Oct. 9 full board meeting in order to reach a decision on whether or not to recommend the building for New York City landmark status to the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which requested the community’s input following their Oct. 1 public hearing on the subject.

The Socony Mobil Building was built in 1955 by Harrison & Abramovitz, the architectural firm behind, among others, the Time & Life Building and the New York Aquarium. The 1.6-million-square-foot edifice, which houses a Starbucks and a Foot Locker and is notable for its embossed stainless-steel cladding, is not the ornate Stanford White–type building often associated with the “landmark” designation. Instead, its claims to fame include being the first privately owned fully air-conditioned building in the world, and the fact that it was one of the first office buildings to attract major corporations from lower Manhattan to midtown.

According to landmark-designation laws, any building at least 30 years old is eligible to be considered for landmark status. Indeed, even the boxy Madison Square Garden/Penn Station (the replacement for the original Penn Station, whose demolition famously led to the formation of the Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1965) became eligible for landmarking in 1998.

The Landmarks Preservation Commission decided to consider the Socony Mobil Building for landmarking following the recommendation of architect Robert A.M. Stern. In 1997, Mr. Stern-along with the Municipal Arts Society-submitted a list of 35 New York City buildings, all constructed between 1932 and 1967, to the commission for consideration. At the time, he told Architectural Record that while the buildings might not be well-liked or attractive, “they may be very important technologically, historically, or culturally [and] are transitional buildings which represent the reaction of Classicist architects to the Modernist ideals.” Several of the buildings on his list have since been added to the commission’s tally of over 22,000 New York City landmarks.

Ultimately, the full board voted 24 to 11 in favor of landmarking the building. However, Gary Papush, chairman of the board’s parks, landmarks and cultural-affairs committee, said that the vote at the committee level was the closest he’d ever seen. There were 10 votes in favor, six votes opposed and one abstention.

“A lot of people didn’t think [the Socony Mobil Building] was of special quality,” said Mr. Papush.

“I just think it’s quite ugly,” said board member Lou Sepersky, who is, needless to say, against landmarking the building. “[The stainless steel] looks like the pressed ceiling of a demolished Third Avenue bar.”

“The Socony Mobil Building to me is just bland,” said committee member Phil Cohen, who also voted against the landmarking. “Buildings that deserve landmarking are buildings that are beautiful and that represent the time.”

Committee member Jack Taylor, who voted in favor of landmarking, argued that the building is, in fact, a good representation of the architecture of the period. “Many people feel that it’s a significant example of post–World War II architecture,” he told the board.

Once the Landmarks Preservation Committee receives the board’s recommendation, the commissioners will continue discussion on the subject, said the commission’s chairman, Sherida Paulsen.

The commission is also leaving the matter open at the request of the building’s owner, the Hiro Real Estate Company, and the property owner, Goelet, who are not convinced that the building warrants landmarking. “We don’t believe that the case for designating the building has been successfully made. We’re studying the matter,” said Shelly Friedman of the law firm Friedman & Gotbaum, which represents Hiro and Goelet.

Mr. Papush suggested that the owners’ interests lie elsewhere. “Most owners don’t want their buildings to be landmarked,” he explained. “It’s a financial and administrative burden, because for any changes that you might want to make [to a landmarked building], you have to file an application and listen to the judgment of the commission.”

“In this situation, the owners’ reservation would be that they would need to come to us for review before making changes on the building,” said Ms. Paulsen. She added that she believes landmarking can actually be advantageous for the owners.

“As commercial property owners, they can take advantage of federal tax credits for doing preservation and restoration work, and since the owners of this building have always been extremely good about keeping it in good shape, it might be a benefit for them.”

-Anna Jane Grossman

Board 5 Votes To

Boot Street Vendors

West 28th Street off Fifth Avenue was once known as Tin Pan Alley, named for the cacophony of pianos that rang out from the many music-publishing offices that lined the block. Now it’s known as a peddlers’ paradise, and voices hawking merchandise reverberate down the street, much to the consternation of residents and area business people, who say the vendors are encroaching on their quality of life. Following a spate of complaints about severe sidewalk congestion, blocked subway entrances and trash left by the vendors, Community Board 5, at their Oct. 10 meeting, unanimously voted in favor of a resolution aimed at removing all peddlers from the block.

The resolution calls for 28th Street between Fifth Avenue and Broadway to be designated as a “restricted” area (as some stretches of Fifth Avenue are, where nary a vendor can be found) in which all vending-including licensed vending-is prohibited. It also appeals to the New York Police Department, the Department of Sanitation and the Department of Health, among others, to more strictly enforce the various laws and regulations pertaining to vending in the larger area (such as traffic, trash-disposal and food-cart laws).

Some community members don’t want to see the vendors go, implying that they add to the color of the neighborhood. “I like them,” John Challacombe, who lives near 28th Street and Third Avenue, said of the vendors. “I love the area.” He did, however, concede that trash is a problem: “It is a little cluttered. [The vendors] get a little trashy.”

For the most part, attitudes toward the peddlers are negative. Board 5′s chairman, Kyle Merker, said that problems associated with the vendors “have been going on for a long time-eight years now. Everybody complains, residents as well as businesses.”

“They clog the sidewalk. They dirty the sidewalk. People have hurt themselves [tripping on the merchandise]-it’s a pigsty!” said Sam Rosenberg of Superior Florists, located on Sixth Avenue between 28th and 29th streets, to The Observer . “It makes a bad name for the neighborhood.”

“They contribute to a lot of congestion in the area, and they don’t add anything to the neighborhood,” said Nicholas Athanail, condo-board president of the Stanford building on 25th Street between Park and Madison avenues. He suggested that the venders be relocated to the South Street Seaport. “It’s a good opportunity to revitalize the [Seaport] area. It’s a win-win situation.” He added that police enforcement of vending laws is sporadic at best. “I think there has been a general decline in enforcement [of the laws] overall with the vendors. There aren’t enough resources to monitor vendors while dealing with other issues in the neighborhood.”

The claim that complaints directed to the Police Department go largely ignored was echoed throughout the community. And, some say, vendors have been known to become belligerent when confronted, and fist fights have even resulted.

The vendors, when approached by The Observer , were reluctant to speak, possibly because of their strained relationship with the community. One man, however, did say that, contrary to what many in the community feel, “the cops bust us a lot.”

Michael Hnatko, community-affairs officer for the 13th Precinct, told The Observer that the police do make periodic sweeps in the area. “We get a lot of complaints [that the vendors] block the streets,” he said. According to Officer Hnatko, those who are arrested for illegally selling their wares have their merchandise confiscated and spend the night in jail. He reports that some shop owners have resorted to placing merchandise racks out on the sidewalk in order to compete with the vendors, thereby exacerbating the problem.

Residents and business owners, at the Oct. 10 meeting, said that simply removing the illegal peddlers doesn’t solve the problem; they stressed that they want all vendors out. The time frame for the actions requested by the resolution is unresolved for now, but according to Mr. Merker, it’s an issue that will “unequivocally” be addressed in discussions between the community board and the various agencies involved. “[The resolution] is the first step,” Mr. Merker told The Observer. “If [the vendors don't go away,] we’ll take it a step further.”

-Matthew Ian Grace

Oct. 16: Board 8, Ramaz School, 125 East 85th Street, auditorium,

7 p.m., 758-4340.

Oct. 17: Board 9, 565 West 125th Street, 6:30 p.m., 864-6200.

Oct. 22: Board 12, Columbia University Alumni Auditorium, 650 West 168th Street, 7 p.m., 568-8500.