JPMorgan Chase’s Big Plans on Park Ave. Create First Skirmish Under East Midtown Rezoning - Manhattan Express | Manhattan Express

JPMorgan Chase’s Big Plans on Park Ave. Create First Skirmish Under East Midtown Rezoning

The 52-story building at 270 Park Ave., owned by JPMorgan Chase but opened in 1960 as the Union Carbide headquarters, faces demolition in a plan announced by the financial giant and supported by city and state leaders. | Photo by Paul Schindler

BY PAUL SCHINDLERLast summer, after more than four years of effort — including an initial false start late in Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s final term — the city approved a major rezoning plan for the East Midtown area from Grand Central Terminal north that will allow for new office tower development while providing funding for city-designated historic landmarks, open space set-asides, and mass transit improvements.

The two officials who helmed the arduous process of cobbling the plan together —  Borough President Gale Brewer and then-City Councilmember Daniel Garodnick — both hailed the plan’s adoption as a model for how to bring together diverse constituencies to resolve major contested policy challenges.

Now, right out of the box, the first major redevelopment project announced under the rezoning — JPMorgan Chase’s construction of a 2.5 million square-foot world headquarters at the site of its 52-story building at 270 Park Ave., between E.  47th and 48th Sts. — is drawing fire from preservation advocates as well as architectural critics.

In a Feb. 21 letter to the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, voiced alarm at JPMorgan Chase’s announcement, noting, “The building was designed by Gordon Bunshaft and Natalie de Blois of Skidmore Owings and Merrill [SOM] and is recognized as a very significant example of midcentury corporate Modernism as practiced by the masters of the form. It is especially remarkable as an acknowledged work by a female architect in the male-dominated field of architectural design. This is one of the buildings which defined New York City as the capital of the 20th Century, strongly situated in the corridors of post-war power.”

Bankoff’s letter noted the widespread view among architectural critics that the building, opened in 1960 as Union Carbide’s headquarters, is a remarkable example of post-war Manhattan ambition, quoting New York magazine’s Justin Davidson terming it “one of the peaks of modernist architecture” and Vanity Fair’s Paul Goldberger seeing it as a “deserving 1960s landmark… on architectural grounds, but also for the fact that its primary designer was a woman who never got adequate credit at SOM.”

Writing in Curbed, critic Alexandra Lange argued the building is “a superlative example” of what Pulitzer Prize-winning architectural writer Ada Louise Huxtable, in the late 1950s, termed the Park Avenue School of Architecture, which abandoned the heavy masonry of pre-World War II building in favor a “sleek, shiny” look. In fact, writing in the New York Times in 1960 as the building neared completion, Huxtable said it was among a select group of new skyscrapers that were “adding significant new dimensions to the city — and to contemporary architecture.”

“There is a sharp dividing line between architecture and building, and these important new edifices all qualify, in intent, design, and result, as architecture,” Huxtable wrote of the group that included 270 Park.

For all the building’s merits as architecture worthy of preservation, however, advocates for saving 270 Park face a steep political hurdle — unanimous support among local and state officials for JPMorgan Chase’s plan.

“This is our plan for East Midtown in action,” Mayor Bill de Blasio stated in the company’s Feb. 21 press release. “Good jobs, modern buildings, and concrete improvements that will make East Midtown stronger for the hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who work here. We look forward to working with JPMorgan Chase as it doubles-down on New York as its international home.”

In the same release, Governor Andrew Cuomo said, “JPMorgan Chase’s commitment to build their new, state-of-the-art corporate headquarters and support thousands of jobs here in New York is proof that our economic development strategies are successful, and I look forward to working with them to keep New York State’s momentum moving forward.”

Brewer and Keith Powers, Garodnick’s successor as the local councilmember, also praised the project as an example of how the rezoning plan should work.

JPMorgan Chase’s plan, which the company says would create 8,000 construction jobs over a five-year period beginning as early as 2019, replaces the existing 700-foot building with a 1,200-foot tower to house up to 15,000 employees, versus the existing head count of 3,500. The announcement comes after the company’s protracted examination of a potential relocation to Hudson Yards on the Far West Side. The required contribution to the “public realm” to fund transit improvements and open space set-asides as part of the company’s purchase of development rights from nearby landmarked buildings are estimated to total as much as $40 million.

The appeal by the Historic Districts Council and other preservationists — including the New York Landmarks Conservancy and Docomomo US — represents a huge political ask of the LPC, which though an independent agency is ultimately under mayoral control. Bankoff acknowledged as much. “The LPC is a mayoral agency,” he said. “This is a very tough thing. It’s very hard for an agency to go against their boss.”

But the demand by preservationists that the LPC take another look at 270 Park doesn’t come out of the blue. In 2013, the commission notified Bankoff that the building was among nearly two-dozen in East Midtown that “may merit designation and will be further considered in the context of… the Commission’s overall priorities for the city.” Three years later, the LPC confirmed that the building continued to be considered a candidate for designation.

Bankoff told Manhattan Express that he had received no substantive response from the LPC to his Feb. 21 letter beyond acknowledgement of it.

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the LPC told the newspaper, regarding 270 Park, “Further consideration of this building as a landmark is not among the Commission’s priorities at this time. As part of the interagency East Midtown rezoning initiative, the Commission evaluated buildings in the area, including this one. As a result, we prioritized and designated 12 iconic buildings that represented the key periods of development in the area as individual landmarks, but the JPMorgan Chase building was not among them. These 12 designations in East Midtown brought the number of individual landmarks in the area to 50 that include International style masterpieces of this era such as the Seagram Building and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s Lever House. In addition, LPC found that other buildings from this era and architect had already been represented by landmarks, including the Pepsi-Cola Building, the Manufacturers Trust Company building, and the former One Chase Manhattan Plaza in Lower Manhattan.”

Notably, the LPC’s 1995 designation report on the Pepsi-Cola Building, at 500 Park Ave. at E. 59th St., notes the leading role played by SOM architect Natalie de Blois, who also worked on Lever House, at 390 Park at E. 54th St.

A street-level view 270 Park Ave. taken from the southeast across Park and 47th St. | Photo by Paul Schindler

From Bankoff’s perspective, the fact that 270 Park remained on the LPC list of buildings that might merit preservation in 2016 but is now a candidate for demolition in 2018 with the mayor’s enthusiastic backing, is indicative of the “weakness of the process” for making landmark designations in the city. A major rezoning, he argued, should resolve all outstanding questions about buildings that might merit landmarking. Garodnick, Bankoff said, made a push last summer in advance of the City Council’s final approval of the rezoning to do just that, but it never happened. In a letter to the LPC last July, Garodnick wrote that he hoped the dozen designations made in East Midtown last year “will not prescribe the end of the public conversation about East Midtown landmarks.”

In its statement opposing the JPMorgan Chase project, the New York Landmarks Conservancy said that during last year’s public review process regarding the rezoning plan it warned that eligible landmarking candidates whose status was not resolved prior to approving the plan “would face severe development pressure, and now, 270 Park Avenue will be the first loss.”

Even though 270 Park was among the buildings that had received no protection as of the rezoning’s adoption, JPMorgan Chase’s decision still caught preservationists by surprise. According to Bankoff, it was not cited as a possible candidate for redevelopment in the environmental review of the rezoning plan, and in 2012 the company undertook a major renovation in the building that earned it a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, certification and significant tax concessions from the city.

Asserting that taking down the existing structure at 270 Park would be “the largest voluntary demolition in human history,” Bankoff said, “I find it hard to believe that you can demolish a 52-story building as of right.” Noting that no permits have been issued, development rights have not yet been purchased from qualified properties, and no architect has been named publicly, the HDC official said, even without the LPC taking action to landmark the building, JPMorgan Chase has many hurdles to surmount in winning final approval for its plans.

“We live in a regulatory environment,” Bankoff said, noting the environmental and traffic impacts of demolishing a 700-foot building and replacing it with a 1,200-foot building in one of Park Ave.’s busiest stretches.

In the HDC’s view, the lost opportunity here is that there are lower density zones within the East Midtown district where a project of this scope could be carried out without damaging an iconic stretch of midcentury Modernism. And, in Bankoff’s mind, de Blasio’s embrace of the project also puts front and center the question of “what value this administration puts on preservation and on a process that has worked over the past half century.”

One Response to JPMorgan Chase’s Big Plans on Park Ave. Create First Skirmish Under East Midtown Rezoning

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