On Tuesday, the Landmarks Preservation Commission was unimpressed by a planned replacement for a row of buildings in the Tribeca East Historic District, and commissioners did not approve the plan for a new mixed-use building at 312-322 Canal Street.
The row of buildings is at the corner of Canal and Mercer streets. Today there are five buildings, constructed between 1825 and 1826. They were significantly altered in 1851, 1892, and between 1962 and 1965. Those alterations included the addition and then subtraction of height, leaving the extant approximately two-story buildings. They fell under the LPC’s jurisdiction when it designated the historic district in 1992.
Now, developer Trans World Equities wants to demolish the existing structures. It has hired Andy Vann of Paul Castrucci’s Lower East Side-based architecture firm to design the replacement. Vann proposed a nine-story building with up to three retail spaces on the ground floor, apartments and recreation space on the second and third floors, and duplex apartments spanning the fourth and fifth, sixth and seventh, and eighth and penthouse levels. The penthouse units would have roof access. It would have been a passive house design and made of prefabricated brick molded into concrete.
To say the commissioners were unimpressed is a bit of an understatement. Several weren’t convinced of the case for demolishing the existing buildings. Some could be convinced, but not convinced the proposed replacement would be appropriate. Commissioner Michael Devonshire suggested there might be some of the original Flemish brick behind the existing façade, and Vann could offer no evidence there isn’t.
In the commissioners’ comments, Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan noted that she doesn’t typically lead off discussions, but tore right into this proposal. Though she could accept demolition, she said the building presented would have a “completely inappropriate” occupant of a “very important site.” She called it “overwhelming” and said the stair and elevator bank on the east side of the building would be a “big monolithic uninteresting tower.” She said the retail storefront design is “so generic and has no personality.”
Commissioner Devonshire added that it is the “mono-everything about this that is so completely inappropriate.” He also said the applicant showed a “lack of respect” for the LPC, as the site has a history of violations since the current owner took control.
Commissioner Michael Goldblum said demolition might be appropriate, but any new building would need some sense of the previous scale. He was unhappy with the storefronts’ suppressed columns that create one uninterrupted face. He said the whole thing needs a lighter hand.
Commissioner Diana Chapin said the proposal was “too big, too bulkly, too monolithic.” She was, however, okay with the idea of demolishing what’s there.
Commissioner Jeanne Lutfy said the building, while it has an articulated façade, presents a massive scale and lack of real variation that is “exactly the opposite of what is happening in the street.”
Fifteen members of the public came to testify against the proposal.
Actor and writer (and more) Eric Bogosian (who you might remember as the bad guy in “Under Siege 2: Dark Territory” or as Captain Danny Ross on “Law & Order: Criminal Intent”) said, “What makes Canal Street special is its quaintness.”
Filmmaker James Sanders, who co-conceived “New York: A Documentary Film” with Ric Burns, was part of a large group of current and former residents of 45 Lispenard Street who came to the hearing. He said the new building would be “highly inappropriate” and would overwhelm the recently approved work at 308-310 Canal Street, a project also from Paul Castrucci’s architecture firm.
“There is a good reason why a nine-story, 102-foot wide building hasn’t been built here before – this is a shallow, mid-block parcel,” testified historic preservation specialist Marissa Marvelli.
Sydney Court, speaking on behalf of actor and Tribeca Film Festival co-founder Robert De Niro’s daughter Drena, called this kind of development the “consistent rape and pillaging” of the city.
Architect Harry Kendall of BKSK Architects, who usually stands at the other end of the LPC hearing room to present his proposals, rose to oppose this plan. He praised the LPC’s work on the district, saying it has been like watching a photo slowly develop.
Andrea Goldwyn of the New York Landmarks Conservancy said proposed building was “troubling.” Christabel Gough of the Society for the Architecture of the City said of the proposed design, “Detailed criticism might wrongly suggest modification could improve it.”
“The five former Federal dwellings the applicant seeks to demolish are integral parts of the commercial character of the TriBeCa East Historic District. In the 1992 designation report, they are noted for their history and existing historic fabric,” testified Patrick Waldo of the Historic Districts Council. “Even if their demolition was permitted, the new building being proposed to replace them has no relation to the historic district.”
Manhattan Community Board 1, the SoHo Alliance, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, and Assembly Member Deborah Glick were against the project. The commission also received 10 emails and two letters against it.
In the end, the commissioners took no action. That means the applicant could come back with a revised proposal — but it will have to be a major revision to win over the LPC.