Last year, the former Citicorp Center complex was designated an individual landmark by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, one of 40 such designations in 2016. On Tuesday, the agency made its first move as a regulator of the space.
The complex is located at 601 Lexington Avenue and includes the 59-story office tower with the distinctive angled top, St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, a six-story commercial building (also known as 159 East 53rd Street), and a sunken public plaza.
Owner Boston Properties wants to revitalize the six-story building. In order to do that, it plans to reconfigure several interior spaces, most notably the public atrium. Planned is a grand staircase with seating bleachers on each side leading down from East 53rd Street and a new market space with a variety of food and seating options.
To execute that vision, it wants to change the storefronts on East 53rd Street. Attorney Wesley O’Brien of Fried Frank introduced the presentation, articulating the fact that the complex exists as we know it because of POPS, or privately owned public spaces. They are sometimes referred to as bonus plazas, and are overseen by the City Planning Commission.
The design for the new entrances comes from the firm Gensler, which had its architect in the LPC hearing room. However, for clarity and brevity, only preservation consultant Bill Higgins of Higgins Quasebarth & Partners presented.
Put simply, the existing recessed entry would be eliminated and glass brought to the street. Then three ADA-accessible revolving doors, built at grade, would be installed to its west.
Another part of Boston’s plan is to reconfigure the sunken outdoor plaza, eliminating the waterfall. This was approved by the city prior to the complex’s designation, which means its execution can’t be stopped by the LPC. It also means that while the commissioners and members of the public were free to speak it, it was outside of the scope of both the proposal and the agency.
LPC Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan, who once worked on a project at the complex, said these public spaces will continue to evolve. She said the proposed changes, in general, “very much in the spirit of the building.”
Commissioner Adi Shamir-Baron said it will be a “positive thing” to bring more of the building’s interior out to the street, but wasn’t sure it would be necessary to bring the doors right on to the sidewalk.
Commissioner Michael Goldblum said he loved how the six-story building’s main entrances both stand out and present a corridor between 53rd and 54th streets, with a recess on 53rd and a punched corner on 54th. He said he’s like to see the recess maintained on 53rd.
Several commissioners spoke of their lack of enthusiasm for the changes that were approved prior to designation. So did members of the public.
Christabel Gough of the Society for the Architecture of the City mourned the loss of the water feature and said the city has an embarrassing history when it comes to maintaining bonus plazas.
“The public has been informed that proposed changes to the sunken courtyard of the Citicorp Center were approved by the City Planning Commission prior to designation and that permits have been filed with the Department of Buildings. HDC wishes to express its regret at reports that the water feature may be removed from the space, which seems like an unfortunate loss,” testified Barbara Zay of the Historic Districts Council. “We would suggest that the LPC retain a seat at the table in discussions for the fate of the courtyard by working closely with the owner, and perhaps the MTA, to find an alternative or to return this decorative feature, which provides an element of civility and whimsy to the space.”
The proposal did have the support of Manhattan Community Board 5.
In the end, the commissioners, with unanimity, approved the proposal before them. However, they asked the applicant to work with LPC staff to see if some sense of the recessed entry could be maintained on 53rd Street.
View the full presentation slides here: