All hope is not lost in the effort to save New York City’s beloved Rizzoli Bookstore and surrounding buildings from demolition, even as the fight between developers and preservationists on Manhattan’s rapidly changing 57th Street is getting dirtier -- literally.
Sources say Vornado Realty Trust (NYSE:VNO), which co-owns the three properties at the center of the dispute, deployed contractors to deface the exterior of the buildings in a premeditated effort to derail the landmark-evaluation process. “Preemptive demolition,” as the tactic is known, is not an uncommon strategy for property owners, which have been known to purposely disfigure a building’s distinctive features after catching wind of an effort to designate a property for landmark protection. In this case, the tactic was alleged in detail on the Save Rizzoli blog. The blog’s anonymous author noted that the gold caryatids and ornamentation at 29 West 57th St., a 90-year-old former piano showroom known as Chickering Hall, had been torn off the building’s exterior.
A source familiar with the situation confirmed that workers showed up at the property several days after the campaign to save the buildings began. The workers said they were there to conduct repairs, the source said, but proceeded to fill in some of the distinctive grooves and other building characteristics with cement. The top of Checkering Hall, which once displayed a stunning replica of the Legion d’Honneur medal won by the firm’s pianos at the 1867 Paris Exposition, has been reduced to an eyesore of faded concrete.
The source, who asked not to be identified, said the property owners have been bullying tenants, including Rizzoli, telling them not to speak out on the ongoing preservation fight. Tenants contacted for this article did not respond to a request for comment. Vornado, along with co-owner The LeFrak Organization, are presumed to be planning a luxury condo tower for the site.
Asked to comment on the alleged preemptive demolition, a spokesperson for Vornado said simply that the property owners respect the city’s landmarks process. “As two of New York’s largest property owners, Vornado and LeFrak each has a successful history of working collaboratively with the city and value New York’s heritage,” the spokesman said. “Vornado and LeFrak each own numerous landmarked properties and are fully respectful of the landmarks process.”
As International Business Times first reported in January, the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission has already determined that the Rizzoli building at 31 West 57th Street “lacks the architectural significance necessary to meet the criteria for designation as an individual landmark.” News of that determination sparked a worldwide effort to save the buildings from demolition and preserve what’s left of a street that has fallen prey to rapid development.
While the alterations at Chickering Hall have possibly sealed that building’s fate, all hope is not lost for the adjacent Rizzoli building. Last week, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer wrote a personal appeal to Robert B. Tierney, chairman of the LPC, urging the commission to hold an immediate public hearing on the matter. Brewer’s office also sent a request to have the property evaluated as an “interior landmark,” a designation less likely to be affected by alterations to the outside of the building.
Damaris Olivo, a spokeswoman for the LPC, said in a phone call Tuesday that the new request is currently under review from the commission’s research department, and that a decision will likely be reached in the next few weeks.
“It’s not over,” Olivo said. “It’s moving along.”
In recent years, West 57th Street has emerged as a kind of Ground Zero for the growing tensions between developers and preservationists. Dubbed by some as the new Billionaire’s Row, the crosstown thoroughfare is now home to the largest residential skyscraper in the city, One57, a 90-story tower of luxury condos due to open this year. And an even taller tower, one that will eclipse the Empire State Building, was recently green lighted for 215 West 57th Street. That project, too, is being fought by preservationists.
But the fight over Rizzoli is as much about legacy as it is about what New York preservation will look like in the post-Michael Bloomberg era. Tierney, a Bloomberg appointee, has not moved fast enough on the issue according to those leading the effort, including Manhattan Community Board Five. Following IBTimes’ report in January, the board’s members wrote Tierney to say they were “very disturbed” to learn that the building is facing demolition, particularly as a request for evaluation was submitted as early as 2007.
As for Mayor Bill de Blasio, few New Yorkers know where he stands on the issue of preservation. Three months into the job, he has yet to name Tierney’s successor, although a decision is expected soon. De Blasio’s office has not responded to numerous requests for comment on the Rizzoli effort, and some involved in the campaign say he has ignored their letters requesting action.
Brewer, long a champion of pro-preservationist causes, is planning to visit Rizzoli Bookstore at 12:00 p.m. on Friday to call for “reforms to the slow and opaque landmarks process.” She is asking that those who support the effort join her.
Update Friday, 3:12 p.m.:
Video of Brewer’s rally outside Rizzoli Bookstore has been uploaded to YouTube.