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Morgan Proposal Makes Architect Grouse, Community Board Smile

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There are certain unspoken rules when it comes to designing buildings in New York City. For instance, local architects tend to give silent nods of approval to their peers’ designs, no matter how curious the building. And generally speaking, community boards can be counted on to take the most aesthetically exquisite scheme and point out an offensive cantilever, a faulty wheelchair ramp or a roof shingle that touches a landmark building. But reactions to the recent construction proposal for the Morgan Library seem to prove that rules were made to be broken. While local architects have had sharp words for the scheme, Community Board 6, at a Feb. 13 meeting, voiced its support for the project.

Architect Renzo Piano, of Paris’ Centre Pompidou and the impending New York Times Building, has been asked to expand gallery space and increase public access to the Morgan. Mr. Piano plans to create a glass-enclosed piazza in the block’s center, move the main entrance from 36th Street to Madison Avenue, create a new reading room and auditorium, build a windowless cubic structure for rare books in the complex’s courtyard and put in a four-story underground book vault. The project, which will create 1.1 million square feet of new floor space, will cost $75 million dollars and cause the Morgan to close from next spring possibly into 2005.

The Morgan complex contains several landmark structures, including a 1906 McKim, Mead and White building; therefore, before construction can begin, a certificate of appropriateness from the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission is needed. According to Morgan spokespeople, Mr. Piano has gone to great lengths to design new structures that do not overpower the older ones.

On Feb. 5, the Morgan presented its construction proposal to Community Board 6’s parks, landmarks and cultural affairs committee. Later, at the full board meeting, members echoed concerns previously articulated by the New York Landmarks Conservancy, which focused on, among other things, the fate of an ornamental fence that will be removed from Madison Avenue, unresolved details of materials and the height of the new structures. Nonetheless, Board 6 voted to encourage the Landmarks Preservation Commission to issue the certificate. An array of other civic groups have also urged that the certificate be granted at the commission’s Feb. 26 meeting.

Meanwhile, architect Robert A.M. Stern has voiced skepticism about the project’s treatment of the landmarks. (“Mr. Piano is an ‘outsider,’ and therefore vulnerable to attack by local architects who shy away from criticizing one another,”Herbert Muschamp wrote recently in a story about the Morgan in The New York Times .) In a Jan. 28 letter to the Landmarks Preservation Commission, Mr. Stern applauded Mr. Piano’s overall design, but said he is concerned about the appropriateness of several key aesthetic elements, including the “blank-walled” cube that he feels detracts from the area’s garden-like atmosphere, and also the “proposed, monumentally scaled entrance on Madison Avenue [which] … compromises the sense of the ensemble as a group of formal buildings in an informal secluded garden setting.” Mr. Stern also worries that visitors will be steered away from 36th Street and will be seeing the McKim, Mead and White building only from the rear, “rob[bing] it of a great deal of meaning.”

So an architect grouses, and a community board smiles. But will this anomalous situation last? Gary Papush, head of Board 6’s landmarks committee, told The Observer that in two years the board may have to address traffic concerns that could arise when the library’s entrance is relocated. Two years … the smile should wear off by then.

-Anna Jane Grossman

Board 5 Says: ‘Enough With the Street Fairs Already!’

It’s a sure sign that spring has sprung in New York. On weekend afternoons starting in mid-March, and not petering out until Thanksgiving Day, corn dogs, marching bands and tube-sock vendors-unmistakable elements of the famed New York street fair-enliven the city’s neighborhoods. To some, the fleeting parties are a source of great amusement and joy. To others, like many residents of the neighborhoods represented by Community Board 5, the festivities are nothing more than big noisy messes littering the streets.

At Board 5’s Feb. 14 meeting, chair Kyle Merker and the 30 other members sent out a clear message to would-be event organizers. Stated in no uncertain terms, that message was: “Enough with the street fairs already!”

Each year, the board’s consents and variances committee, chaired by Mickey Schwartz, has the arduous task of sifting through the dozens of applications for street-activity permits that are submitted by eager festival organizers hoping to pitch their tents in the neighborhoods from Union Square to Central Park that comprise Board 5’s district.

“For years, Community Board 5 residents have been inundated with street fairs,” said Mr. Merker. Of the 238 street-fair applications submitted for all of Manhattan last year, 39 were for events in Board 5’s district. “We have a very big city. Why do the same people have to put up with the noise every weekend over the summer?”

Out of the 30 submissions for street-fair permits this year-ranging from the Young Republican Club to Global Role Models Inc.-six applicants were rejected at the meeting, a decision that had the support of the local residents attending.

“The sound levels are intolerable,” said Sam Liebowitz, a Madison Square Park resident, during the meeting’s open-mike session. Two other residents of 23rd Street and Madison Square Park applauded frequently as the board rejected each of the applications.

Among the six to be booted was the Alliance of Guardian Angels. The civilian street-watch group planned to hold their festival on Sept. 28, between 42nd and 57th streets on Seventh Avenue. The application was rejected, according to the board, because of the location. “[The festival] will cause an impediment to vehicular and pedestrian traffic on Seventh Avenue,” Mr. Schwartz told the board, which promptly rejected the Angels, along with two other Seventh Avenue bids. Curtis Sliwa, the WABC shock-jock and head of the red-bereted legion, told The Observer later, “I totally understand their decision. We’ll probably review our plans to see if there’s another location near our headquarters on Eighth Avenue.”

But other event organizers were not as understanding. “This is just discrimination, rampant discrimination,” said Tariq Khokhar, of the Pakistan Independence Day Parade committee, after the board rejected its permit application. The parade, which has run down Madison Avenue between 23rd and 26th streets since 1985, attracts up to 4,000 people who, according to Mr. Khokhar, create little disturbance and clean up after they leave. “We don’t even use the park. Everything is cleaned up by 11 p.m.,” he told The Observer .

Despite the board’s strong stance, most of the rejected applications will be approved, according to Mildred Duran, assistant commissioner of the city’s Street Activity Permit Office. “We manage to work out any problems with the organizers,” she said, adding that the community board can make recommendations of denial but do not have the final say as to whether a street fair goes ahead or not. Though the board’s role in the decision-making process appears to be a symbolic one, Mr. Merker regrets not using the vote to make more of a statement. “In hindsight, we should have turned down all street fairs,” he told The Observer .

On the positive side, Ms. Duran noted that street fairs and parades generate around $2 million in revenue for the city, and that the events “give an opportunity for each group to celebrate their heritage within New York.”

-Shazia Ahmad

Manhattan Community Boards