Just how in control of a historic district is the Landmarks Preservation Commission? The answer is very in control, as illustrated by one recent approval in the Flatiron District. Think of the commission as a curator.
On August 9, the LPC approved the installation of sidewalk planters in front of 200 Fifth Avenue, which spans the avenue between West 23rd Street and West 24th Street. The 14-story building was designed by the firm of Maynicke and Franke and built between 1908 and 1909. It fell under the commission’s protection when the Ladies’ Mile Historic District was designated in 1989.
The plan for the planters comes from the Wall Street-based consulting engineering firm of Weidlinger Associates, Inc. It was presented to the commissioners by preservation consultant Cas Stachelberg of the firm Higgins Quasebarth & Partners.
There will be six planters along Fifth Avenue, just south of the subway entrance. They will match those on the other side of avenue, in material, dimension, finish, and spacing. That spacing will be four feet, eight inches apart. They will be made of a lightweight, recycled material. They will not be anchored, making them easily removable, if the building owner decides they need to go away. The actual plantings will vary.
Stachelberg said this was a “simple proposal.” Indeed, whether one supports it or not, it is a simple proposal, showing the detail of work executed by this curator. Stachelberg said the plan “harmonizes nicely with the cladding on 200 Fifth [Avenue].”
“I don’t see any issues with having the planters over,” said LPC Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan. She said the greenery will complement Madison Square Park and that, given the width of the sidewalk, the planters won’t hinder circulation or block the view of the ground floor.
Commissioner Michael Goldblum called the planters “relics of an earlier time when everyone was trying to do these low-cost spruce-ups.”
“I think that there is certainly contextual district precedent for it, and I think it’s, therefore, appropriate,” Goldblum said. “I just kinda wish they weren’t there. I think they kind of don’t belong in a district that was mercantile and commercial in its nature, but I don’t think they’re inappropriate. I just don’t particularly think they’re good.”
He added that his first job was near there, back when the area was what he described as a “dump,” and he has nostalgia for that.
Commissioner Michael Devonshire said his visceral response was that they don’t really detract from the building. “I find the addition of these planters to be far less chaotic than the hoards of gawkers standing in front of Eataly, who I would much more prefer to get rid of,” he said.
Commissioner Jeanne Lutfy said she was overall neutral on the proposal, but was aware that the parties involved – the owner, the local business improvement district (BID), and others – are trying to create a sense of connectivity in the area, and that made sense to her.
Srinivasan noted the support of Manhattan Community Board 5 and Flatiron 23rd Street Partnership (the local BID).
Conservation groups, however, were not supportive.
Jack Taylor, of the Drive to Protect the Ladies’ Mile District, said that, at no point in the building’s history, has greenery been incorporated into the sidewalk. He noted the sidewalk already has a clock (which is itself an individual landmark, designated in 1981), the subway entrance, a newsstand, a telephone booth, a mailbox, and lamppost (with hanging planter). He pointed to 13 planters already on the other side of the avenue, and the hundred or so more inside the park. He called the new ones a sign of “a veritable epidemic.”
“HDC does not support this application, as we found the planters to further confound the clutter on this stretch of Fifth Avenue. On this immediate sidewalk, there are existing planters down the block, a mailbox, a street clock, a newsstand, phonebooths, a subway entrance, and trash receptacles. Collectively, these items form a wall surrounding 200 Fifth Avenue. There are currently perforations in this wall to allow pedestrians to cross the street from the people-saturated Flatiron Plaza and its subsequent food vendors,” testified the Historic Districts Council’s Kelly Carroll. “The proposed planters will essentially fill in these perforations and add to the chaos. We understand that the consultant of this proposal specializes in security, and leads HDC to believe that beatification is not the motivation behind these plants, but rather something more exclusive in nature. With heavy potted plantings and a green vista just across the street in Madison Square Park, these should be eliminated from the sidewalk.”
In the end, the commissioners, with unanimity, approved the application.
View the presentation slides here: