When the Landmarks Preservation Commission met yesterday afternoon to be told officially just how much Upper East Siders dislike Lord Norman Foster's proposed glass tower for 980 Madison Avenue, the forum had to be moved to a larger room at 31 Chambers Street, not just to accommodate four scale models and WNBC's camera but also to fit all the tweedy outrage that had assembled. There was a jam of pinstripes and pearls at the metal detector downstairs, so the hearing started late.
Foster's project was previously rejected by the local community board, and the area's city councilmember is opposed, so the microdemocratic winds were already against the idea of a high-tech, glass-walled, 300-plus-foot addition to the streetscape. (Never mind that it would still be shorter than the Carlyle Hotel across the avenue.) But developer Aby Rosen, who has earned a reputation for aesthetic cultivation with his ownership and renovation of Lever House and the Seagram Building, his lawyer and historic-preservation consultant, and Foster himself nevertheless did their best to appear nonplussed in their presentations, the thrust of which was that New York is a city of change, "regeneration," and eclecticism, and this building is a thoughtful and pretty one. The audience was politely impressed — neighborhood avant-guardists Peter Brant, a former owner of Art and Auction, declared he "embraced the project"; artist Jeff Koons, soft-spoken and wringing his hands a bit, worried that an Upper East Side without anything new in it would be "like Disneyland," architecturally "segregated." Both fashion designer Tory Burch and fellow starchitect Richard Meier had underlings read letters of support for Foster's project. (Meier invited the LPC members to give him a call if they "had any questions.")
From residents, however, there was much anger at first learning about the project via a fairly glowing review in the Times, much talk of how "our neighborhood should not be a petri dish for architectural experimentation," horrified characterizations of the building as a "oversized, ovoid glazed conceit of a project." Rosen, in other words, was proud to be putting up such a gorgeous trophy, and opponents were terrified this could be the beginning of the end for their meticulous quasi-Paris of prewar limestone co-ops and luxury retail. Will quasi-Paris fall? Stay tuned.
— Carl Swanson
CORRECTION: This item originally said the Municipal Art Society, like the local community board, had previously rejected the project. In fact, the society recommended it not be approved.