Oops, They Did It Again! And Carnegie Hill Still Says No

Give Citibank credit for its tenacity. It couldn’t have been easy for its representatives to stand before a packed auditorium

Give Citibank credit for its tenacity. It couldn’t have been easy for its representatives to stand before a packed auditorium at the March 21 meeting of Board 8, trying to convince stone-faced board members and neighbors for the second time that the bank’s proposal to rebuild its Carnegie Hill branch with a residential tower above was a good thing. But they tried. They tried admirably and, for the second time, they failed miserably.

Citibank’s plan for the site it owns at the northeast corner of 91st Street and Madison Avenue was originally presented to the board’s landmarks committee in January 2000, when bank representatives submitted sketches for a new 15-story building that would house a Citibank branch on the ground floor and a residential complex with two penthouses above.

The notoriously finicky residents of Carnegie Hill, who had disliked the plan since it first surfaced in January 1999, opposed the project, saying the building was completely inappropriate both in style and size for a landmarked block of three-to five-story townhouses. Board 8 members agreed, siding with the residents and rejecting the bank’s plan.

A June 2000 meeting of the Landmarks Preservation Commission handed residents a further victory as the Commission unanimously upheld the board’s decision. The plan’s architects were sent home with a laundry list of demands, including reduction of the building’s height and numerous alterations to the plan for the building’s façade that were more in keeping with the existing prewar styles on the block.

But as the March 21 meeting proved, Citibank sitting on a valuable piece of property has remained undaunted. Represented by architect Paul Byard of Platt Byard Dovell and Bob Davis, an attorney for Tamarkin Company, the site’s developer, the development team presented the board with a revised design, one that incorporates the existing one-story Citibank building now on the site into a 10-story tan-brick 127-foot apartment building. With the inclusion of a mechanical bulkhead on the roof as well as a water tower, the overall height of the building would reach 142 feet.

Faced with a design proposal that towered over the remainder of the block, where the average building height is approximately 50 feet, board members and residents once again condemned the plan.

“First they gave us a skyscraper. Now they give us a big, hulking, looming box with no grace and with no relationship to the townhouses in the north and east,” said one community resident one of about two dozen neighbors and elected officials to step up to the microphone.

Residents also refuted the developer’s argument for the appropriateness of its design on the grounds that there are already high-rise buildings on the other three corners of the 91st Street and Madison Avenue intersection, saying that these buildings are located on significantly larger lots than the Citibank site.

Josh Stein, whose family has lived on Carnegie Hill for generations, echoed another common sentiment, saying, “Just because the neighborhood has made mistakes in the past doesn’t mean we should make one now.”

Even film director Woody Allen, a resident of Carnegie Hill who has been vocal in the fight against encroaching developers in the past and who made a persuasive case against Citibank before the Landmarks Preservation Commission last year spoke before the board.

“I’ve combed every inch of the city,” he said, “and I’ve always filmed in Carnegie Hill because it’s one of the great small neighborhoods in the city, and every building like this is an encroachment. We’d welcome them [the developer] with open arms if they’d just follow the recommendations of everyone who has made recommendations on this, including the Landmarks Preservation Commission, to give us seven stories …. They’d make a nice profit with seven stories; my accountant would be glad to show them how to do it.”

The board ultimately voted to no one’s surprise to uphold its landmarks committee’s March 13 resolution rejecting Citibank’s proposal. The bank and local residents will next square off at the April 3 Landmarks Preservation Commission meeting, which has final say on the matter.

Petra Bartosiewicz

New Life (and Color) For Maritime Building

One of the icons of New York’s waterfront will soon get a second lease on life.

Down on the docks of South Street, upstream from the Staten Island ferry, the lime-green Battery Maritime Building sits decaying, its crumbling roof shrouded by a black protective net, its piers rotting in the East River waves.

The old ferry terminal, at the base of South Street by the Whitehall N and R subway station, is the last of the terminals that once lined the East River waterfront.

“It’s a beautiful, beautiful building,” says Yvonne Morrow, director of constituent services for Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. “And if they don’t do something soon, it will fall apart.”

“Soon” is now little more than a month away, when the city’s Economic Development Corporation will start spending $36 million to recreate the terminal’s original-exterior yellow-orange stucco and a mosaic of green, yellow and cobalt-blue tiles that the architect promises will stun passers-by.

Richard Pieper, the project director for Jan Hird Pokorny Associates Inc., said design work starts in May. The entire restoration will take three years to complete.

During that time, the development corporation has to decide what to put inside the building, which now holds the offices of the city’s Department of Transportation. Just south of the planned spot for the new Guggenheim Museum and the traditional gateway to Governors Island, the Battery Maritime Building could become prime real estate.

The vocal neighborhood activists who make up Board 1 hope to have a say in the city’s decision. At the March 20 meeting of Board 1, chairwoman Madelyn Wils encouraged board members to attend the board’s waterfront committee meeting on March 28.

“I was wondering if this should be something cultural maybe some theater, maybe a sports center,” Ms. Wils told The Observer. “I don’t want to see a shopping mall there.”

Whatever the use of the rehabbed space, it will be quite different from that of a century ago, when the Municipal Ferry crisscrossed the East River between South Street and 39th Street in Brooklyn.

Richard Walker and Charles Morris designed the station as a Beaux Arts testament to New York’s industrial might 40-foot columns and Guastavino tile vaults made from rolled steel and cast iron. But soon after the terminal’s completion, ferry traffic dwindled. By 1920 the terminal lost money, and in 1938 the ferry stopped running. The Coast Guard took control of the terminal along with Governors Island in 1966. Somewhere along the line, someone got the idea of painting the entire thing lime green.

Mr. Pieper, the architect, has waited to get his hands on the project since 1979, when he and his then-future wife, Merrill Hesch, first started walking along the waterfront and he said to her, “I want to work on that one.”

On the morning of Friday, March 16, Mr. Pieper and E.D.C. planners made members of Board 1 “walk the plank” to see what he’s so excited about.

“We actually climbed up into the broken-down inside of the pier so we could look at the south side of the building,” Ms. Wils said. “It was very dangerous. And I had to go to a hearing after that, so I was wearing high heels and a short skirt, which was very impressive, I must say.”

What kind of shoes? The Observer asked.

“Peter Fox, green suede. My heel just kept falling in between the planks, but I didn’t break it. That’s the big story: I didn’t tear my stockings, I didn’t tear my skirt.”

Isaiah Wilner

April 3: Board 7, location to be determined, 7 p.m., 362-4008.

April 4: Board 4, St. Luke’s Hospital, 1000 10th Avenue between 58th and 59th streets, 6 p.m., 736-4536; Board 10, Harlem State Office Building, 163 West 125th Street, second floor, 6 p.m., 749-3105. Oops, They Did It Again!  And Carnegie Hill Still Says No