Ever since the Department of Education posted a Request for Expressions of Interest in three public school sites late this fall—seeking proposals for three “prime development sites” that included PS 199 on West 70th Street—the local community has risen up in protest.
As with other such sites, it’s almost certain that no matter what developer the city selects, the plan will involve a luxury condo tower on the 99,000 square-foot site with a replacement school on the tower’s lower levels.
And while DOE has not yet made any final decisions about the site, the possibility that the school might be razed has not only angered the contingent of parents and teachers that one would expect to be riled by such an announcement, but also preservationists, who are now mobilizing to protest the destruction of the 1963 building, designed by the noted modernist architect Edward Durell Stone.
Last week, City Councilmember Gail Brewer penned a letter calling on Landmarks Preservation Commission Chair Robert Tierney to landmark the building, citing the building’s hovering roofline, which “is reminiscent of Stone’s celebrated U.S. Embassy in New Delhi.”
“In light of the ongoing development in the immediate surrounding neighborhood, the need to preserve historically significant buildings has never been more important to maintaining balance, echoed time and time again by my constituents,” Ms. Brewer writes.
And today, another sign that the preservation battle is heating up landed in The Observer’s inbox: Landmark West is urging New Yorkers to write Mr. Tierney and demand an emergency public hearing to designate and save the building.
Teachers and parents’ opposition to the demolition is obvious—the school will need to be relocated during the years that condo construction will take. Regardless of what, if any, benefits demolition and a spot on the bottom of a luxury tower might offer, at the very least the plan means a lengthy disruption for students.
There should also, despite the fact that ULURP is not required for the city to sell of its own land, be community involvement and an in-depth examination of what the city is getting in exchange for the sale. Underfunding capital improvements on city buildings, then seeking a short-term windfall by selling off the building and land in exchange for space in a private new development should not be the answer to paying for public libraries and schools in the future.
Whether or not the building merits preservation is more difficult to say. As the Architect’s Newspaper points out, Stone is a notable post-war architect, but his designs are far from universally beloved: the Kennedy Center in DC is celebrated, but other buildings have been criticized for their somewhat strange (or brilliant, depending on your take) blend of International Style and Beaux-Arts formalism. Moreover, in something of a preface to the current debate, his marble-topped Lollipop Building at Columbus Circle underwent such extensive interior and exterior renovations (despite the opposition of protesters) that it became virtually unrecognizable.
In any event, the DOE should hardly be surprised that the local community is using whatever resources it can to delay if not stop the development and landmarking—as evinced by the now-common practice of calling for emergency intervention of countless buildings menaced by the developer’s wrecking ball—is an ace in the hole. If one can get it, that is. Regardless of whether or not Stone’s school deserves to stay because of its architectural merit, it’s hard to argue that the three-story school offers a pleasing and unusual contrast in a city that is increasingly plagued by glass cookie-cutter condo towers. Or, as a member of the District 3 Community Education Council told The New York Times last month.
“What makes a place interesting is different kinds of architecture and a school looking like a school.”