On Tuesday, the Landmarks Preservation Commission did something rare by voting down an application. The proposal was for sidewalk planters in front of two SoHo buildings, 575 Broadway and 147 Mercer Street.
575 Broadway is located on Prince Street, between Broadway and Mercer Street. The six-story building was designed by Thomas Stent and built between 1881 and 1882. Prada is the current corner retail tenant. 147 Mercer Street is located on the northeast corner with Prince Street. It is also six stories tall. It was designed by William Schickel & Co. and built in 1888. It is now the Mercer Hotel. The pair came under the LPC’s jurisdiction in 1973, with the designation of the SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District.
The planters would have been maintained by the Association of Community Employment Programs for the Homeless (ACE). The proposal was presented by Ryan Day of the TriBeCa-based architecture firm TRIARCH, who said that in addition to providing work for the homeless, the planters would also provide cleaner air.
There would have been 12 planters along Prince Street in front of 575 Broadway and eight in front of the Mercer Hotel – four along Mercer Street and four along Prince Street. They would have been four feet long by two feet wide by three feet tall. Day said they would have been made of black-painted steel, and would have been removable.
The commissioners were instantly unimpressed with the proposal. Commissioner Frederick Bland spoke up during the presentation to ask Day about the possibility that the planters would become impediments to the movement of people. Day replied by noting that the planters for 575 Broadway would be spread five feet apart on a sidewalk that is 11-and-a-half feet wide. Bland still said they seemed inappropriate there.
Commissioner Jeanne Lutfy suggested the commissioners consider an overall policy regarding greenery in SoHo. LPC Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan said she had reservations about establishing a blanket policy because “every street is different.”
Commissioner Michael Goldblum tossed out the idea of issuing an approval with a time limit. His idea was that they allow the planters to remain for three years before seeing how the project works.
Commissioner Michael Devonshire spoke of his visits to SoHo in the 1960s, when it was grungy with “great smells.” He says it is now something of a “shopping mall,” an atmosphere that would be reinforced with the addition of planters. “There’s a quality about SoHo that’s not Palm Beach,” he said. Commissioner Adi Shamir-Baron said the granite sidewalks are a huge part of what makes SoHo distinctive and agreed that it has become too congested.
“SoHo has changed,” said LPC Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan, who seemed inclined to not reject the proposal outright. Instead, she suggested taking no action so the proposal could be tweaked.
Manhattan Community Board 5 did reject the proposal.
Sean Sweeney, director of the SoHo Alliance, delivered public testimony that spoke to the history of greenery in the neighborhood. He said the prevailing policy, accepted by everyone from the LPC to the Historic Districts Council, was that there were never any trees in SoHo, though it was eventually discovered that wasn’t true. However, that didn’t mean Sweeney was in favor of sidewalk planters. He said the ones proposed Tuesday were intended to get rid of sidewalk vendors.
Henry Buhl, the founder of ACE, spoke to YIMBY and said he was upset that LPC approval was needed, citing many planters approved with only Department of Transportation sign-off. He said the LPC requirement was new and comes with the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio.
While there are sidewalk planters in SoHo that were installed without LPC approval, it has been established that the LPC both regulates sidewalk planters in historic districts (see 200 Fifth Avenue) and has the authority to order the removal of work done without its permission.
Of course, unlike the planters in front of Ralph Lauren, at 109 Prince Street, cited by Mr. Buhl, the ones proposed for 575 Broadway and 147 Mercer Street did not have approval from the local community board, which is an advisory body. Both DOT and LPC are free to approve or deny applications, regardless of the sentiment from the local community board.
In the end, the commissioners voted to deny the certificate of appropriateness. It’s very common that a proposal goes before the commissioners that they find does not meet the standard of appropriateness. Usually, the applicant is told to continue working on the proposal and return to the commission. That move is known as taking “no action.” Voting to deny a proposal is not unheard of, but very rare.