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The Battle of Carnegie Hill

On the surface, it's a classic showdown between homeowners resistant to change and neighbors intent on improving what is, after all, their own property. But up where Andrew Carnegie built his mansion, the ranks of the preservationist army include Kevin Kline, Paul Newman, and the Patton of the perambulator set, Woody Allen.

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Jurate Kazickas, a senior officer in the people's army fighting the development of an apartment building over the Citibank branch at the corner of 91st Street and Madison Avenue, was walking down the street last spring when she spotted Citigroup CEO Sanford Weill, whose company had sold the right to develop the property, leaving the restaurant Vico with his wife, Joan.

"Before he could get into his car, I went up to him and said, 'You've got to do something. Please, please, can we have a meeting with you?' " recalls Kazickas, a journalist and the wife of former deputy Treasury secretary Roger C. Altman. "I basically said, 'You have no idea how upset we are,' and I launched into this tirade and said, 'Buy it back. Please buy it back.' He said, 'Why don't you buy it back?' "

The billionaire eventually told his assailant, whom he knew socially, to call his office. "We were able to get a meeting with the general counsel of Citibank and the public-affairs person," Kazickas continues. "And they were very upset that the neighborhood was upset. It was one of those things that slipped through the cracks. I really honestly think they had no clue the developer was going to do this horrendous thing the community would go wild about."

All politics may be local. But in Carnegie Hill it's zeroed in to the level of lintels, cornices, and flower beds, as preservationists and ladies who lunch square off against developers, schools that want to grow, and even one another in an effort to keep the neighborhood safe for nannies pushing McClaren strollers and movie crews seeking authentic nineteenth-century locations for generations to come.

The war between those who want to develop Manhattan, and usually succeed, and those who want to keep it the way it is is nothing new. What makes Carnegie Hill different is that the combatants in one of the city's hottest neighborhoods are more evenly matched. This is less David versus Goliath than Ali versus Frazier, both sides trotting down to the Landmarks Preservation Commission on an almost weekly basis, it seems, with their lawyers and tweedy architects in tow. The opposing camps come out for the final showdown on April 3, when the anti-tower activists hope to persuade Landmarks to make the developer scale back his already scaled-back proposal even further.

"I love the Spence School," says Carnegie Hill resident Woody Allen. "But you can't buy a landmark house and go about changing it."

If anything, the preservationists appear to have the upper hand, armed as they are not only with righteous indignation, social contacts, and the discretionary income to bankroll their favorite causes but also with their own human missile-defense shield in the unassuming form of Woody Allen.

Allen and his wife, Soon-Yi, moved into a 92nd Street mansion a couple of years ago, and Allen, in whose films Manhattan strides the screen like a lovable colossus, almost instantly became the neighborhood's preservation poster boy. "When I got up to Carnegie Hill, they asked my help almost immediately, and it never stopped," Allen explains, though he's not complaining.

The director has thus far lobbied the landmarks commission against not only the "Citibank tower," as it's been dubbed by its foes, but also the Spence School's plan to enlarge a landmark mansion on 93rd Street and a neighbor who wants to expand the back of his brownstone.

Woody Allen's efforts have even included the making of a short, charming homage to Carnegie Hill that features a soundtrack, trademark Allen voice-over, and special effects. The video, which went into extremely limited distribution -- it was screened a couple of times at fund-raisers for CitiNeighbors, the grass-roots organization fighting the Citibank building, and sent to every member of the landmarks commission -- culminates with a Darth Vader-ish shadow meant to suggest the proposed tower's height, ascending unsociably toward the heavens.

"It isn't a small issue of rich against rich," Allen asserts. "It's people who care about the city versus people who don't care enough about it.

"Carnegie Hill is one of the two or three sections of the city," he adds, "that represent New York City at its most historically charming."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, one property owner insists his stalled project would already be nearing completion were it not for his neighborhood's high-profile residents. "The landmarks people are starstruck," this person complains.

Not that many years ago, Carnegie Hill, which acquired its name when Andrew Carnegie built a mansion there in 1901 (today the Cooper-Hewitt museum), was considered something of a backwater, a place for those who couldn't afford the prices south of 86th Street but remained wedded to the concept of the Upper East Side's Gold Coast. In fact, part of its current sex appeal, according to Lo van der Valk, the president of Carnegie Hill Neighbors, a preservation group, is the felicitous result of what he describes as the "Rip Van Winkle" effect.

"We were passed over by major conversions and demolition and rebuilding," he explains. "And by the time Rip Van Winkle woke up, the landmark laws were in full sway."


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