It will be out with the old and in with the new in a historic part of Chelsea. On Tuesday, the Landmarks Preservation Commission approved demolition of the existing structures at 21 West 17th Street and 16 West 18th Street and the construction of new residential buildings to replace them. The site is between Fifth and Sixth Avenues in the Ladies’ Mile Historic District.
21 West 17th Street was once home to a four-story residential building built in 1850, which became a five-story commercial building. That was demolished in 1949 and a two-story office building was constructed in its place. In1999, a one-story addition was built, leaving us with the three-story building we have today.
16 West 18th Street was built as a two-story stable in 1867 and has remained that height, with the same window arrangement, ever since. Its appearance hasn’t been entirely unaltered, with multiple storefront reconfigurations and the loss of the cornice.
The proposal for their demolition and replacement comes from preservation architect Meisha Hunter of Li • Saltzman Architects and project architect Morris Adjmi, who is quite prolific in this part of the city.
It calls for a 13-story-tall building on 17th Street and a 10-story-tall building on 18th Street. Both facades will be very similar, with terra cotta and white inspired by the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The 17th Street side will have a two-story base nine-story center section and two-story top. The 18th Street side will also have a two-story base, but will be followed by a seven-story center section and one-story top.
According to the latest building permits, the plan is for 12 units averaging over 1,863 square feet on the 17th Street and nine units averaging over 1,882 square feet on the 18th Street side.
The project also includes work on the base of the building located next door at 23-27 West 17th Street and 18-22 West 18th Street. The facades are already being restored, but commissioner-level approval is required for the work at the base. The 18th Street base will have very little work done, but the 17th Street base will see extensive work. Glass will replace an existing opaque section, and where mechanical equipment still needs to be covered, a sort-of shadowbox graphic will be created, based on items in the Met Costume Institute.
Commissioner Adi Shamir-Baron rhetorically wondered how many two- and three-story buildings must be kept to keep on what she called the “Adjmi Mile.” For the record, according to the design team, there are 18 other one- to three-story buildings still in the district.
LPC Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan noted that there are blocks in the district with both contributing and non-contributing buildings. She also asked herself, out loud, if any building designated as having an architectural style is protected from demolition. She answered no. Commissioner Kim Vauss echoed that, saying that just because a building is non-contextual doesn’t leave it open to demolition.
Commissioner Michael Goldblum mused about how to protect a historic district, but added that, “A historic district is not something that is frozen in amber.” He said he could support demolition.
“I’m really squirming on this one,” said Commissioner Frederick Bland. “By a whisper and a hair, I can support demolition.” However, if he didn’t have such a good design from someone like Adjmi, the decision would have been harder for him.
Indeed, it wasn’t an easy decision. “Demolitions in historic districts can be heart-wrenching,” said Srinivasan. “I see why it’s a struggle,” said Commissioner Wellington Chen.
Commissioner Michael Devonshire said he would look for every possible reason to not let these buildings be demolished, but said there was almost nothing historic left.
Commissioner Jeanne Lutfy agreed with her fellow commissioners that the buildings in question weren’t special.
As for the buildings’ proposed replacements, their design didn’t garner much comment from the commissioners because it wasn’t controversial for most of them. “I’m not in love,” said Commissioner John Gustafsson. Commissioner Michael Goldblum said that matching the cornice to each side’s neighbor was a mistake.
Roughly 15 people delivered testimony, most of them against the proposal. They were led off by Jack Taylor of the Drive to Protect the Ladies’ Mile. He stressed the structural stability of the existing buildings and their link to the historic Susquehanna Silk Mills. He noted that the LPC previously rejected demolition of one of the buildings.
Christabel Gough of the Society for the Architecture of the City said she appreciated Adjmi’s work, but called the presentation a “strange cocktail of technical terminology.” She could not support the project.
Neither could Kelly Carroll of the Historic Districts Council. “HDC would like to thank the applicants for making a courteous, special presentation to our organization and stakeholders. In general, we found the proposed new construction appealing and of quality materials. While sound arguments were presented for justification of demolishing these buildings, the resounding argument here is that these buildings were chosen by your Commission to be included in the historic district,” she said. “Even more, this Commission did not find it appropriate to demolish 16 West 18th Street in 2005 because of its contributing and irreplaceable fabric to this district. We are not arguing that these buildings are the highest or best examples of architecture, but their scale is represented by only 16 other buildings in the district.”
“There is a large swath of unprotected fabric not far in the Madison Square North area, which, after the community there was denied landmark status, is full of potential development sites that could produce such a building as the one proposed,” she added. “In general, there has been an increasing, predatory trend in historic districts citywide to identify low scale buildings and reinterpret their significance, which is not the best preservation practice. In conclusion, in our role as New York’s only citywide advocate for historic neighborhoods, we cannot support this application.”
One man who helped with the New York City tree census and used that experience to back up his knowledge of the sites said the existing buildings “are small in height, but big in stature.”
“They are not stepchildren,” said a representative of the Flatiron Alliance. A representative of the Victorian Society said there has been an “alarming number of applications [for demolition or partial demolition in historic districts].”
In the end, the commission approved both the demolition and new construction at 21 West 17th Street and 16 West 18th Street and the restoration and renovation at 23-27 West 17th Street and 18-22 West 18th Street. On the former, Commissioner Gustafsson voted no.
View the presentation slides here: