Columbia Prep Draws Ire Over Planned Addition, Fire Escapes

The city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission considered on Tuesday a proposal by Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School to construct a rear extension in the backyard of 20-30 West 94th Street, with preservationists and local residents criticizing the project.

The school was represented by Peter Samton, a partner at architecture firm Gruzen Samton, who presented slides depicting the much-revised extension in the large backyard of the six rowhouses, between Columbus Avenue and Central Park West. Mr. Samton said the new space would be used by young students, who would no longer crowd in the front of the building and make noise before school, as neighbors have complained.

The proposal also calls for a new one-story addition to three of the rowhouses, along with a set of new fire escapes. 

Despite revisions that included switching the building from a glass to brick exterior to better fit the neighborhood’s character, preservationists and locals aren’t satisfied.

Cristiana Peña, director of community outreach for Landmark West, a preservation group, said the current proposal “raises serious concerns” regarding the reconstruction of the rear yard and use of “green” elements on the roof.

The group proposed that Columbia Prep excavate about 16 feet underground to expand, preserving the above-ground space. Ms. Peña cited previous underground efforts by Claremont Prep, but noted that such a method would probably not fit Columbia Prep’s desired timeframe.

Mr. Samton later said that digging down into rock would be “very difficult.”

Landmark West did, however, support the stripping of “garish red paint” from the façade in an attempt to preserve the row houses, and the installation of a rear stair system.

Nadezhda Williams, a preservation associate at the Historic Districts Council, criticized the fire escapes, calling them “West Side Story-esque.” But she warned against approving “incremental additions” and future modifications that would ultimately lead to changes in the building that the LPC would not approve, had the modifications been proposed at once.

 

For Columbia Prep, however, a gradual approach seems to have paid off.

The school maintains that it has been in dialogue with the community for the past six months regarding the project, modifying many aspects in response to feedback, and has gained a measure of local support.

On Dec. 10, Community Board 7’s Parks & Preservation Committee voted to recommend the project, according to the city’s Web site. The school’s compromises seemed to placate some of the opposition, although members of the board voiced concerns about contextuality of new additions in the historic neighborhood.

In a second vote, Community Board 7 supported the additions on Jan. 5, voting in favor 26-8, in a nonbinding advisory decision.

The LPC will decide whether to approve the project at a later date, but with only five of the LPC’s 11 commissioners present on Tuesday, a vote for approval was postponed. Those commissioners present expressed some support, but also some reservations.

Columbia Prep expanded aggressively and recently purchased 32 West 94th Street for $7.15 million and 30 West 94th Street for $6.15 million, opening the way for the additions.

“I wish it hadn’t been so … rigidly purposeful,” said Commissioner Margery Perlmutter on Tuesday of the school’s efforts, although she said she supported the project.

rli@observer.com

Columbia Prep Draws Ire Over Planned Addition, Fire Escapes