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Community Blasts Condo Plan for Former Whitney-Owned Brownstones

By Amy Zimmer | September 28, 2011 7:40am

UPPER EAST SIDE — A proposed design for a series of brownstones and townhouses sold off by the Whitney Museum of American Art to a developer has come under fire from the local community board.

Developer Daniel Straus, who paid a reported $95 million for the buildings the Whitney used for offices, wants to turn the six brownstones on Madison Avenue and two townhouses around the corner on East 74th Street into one high-end condo building.

But his plans got the thumbs-down from Community Board 8 last week as he prepares to seek approval from the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Several board members blasted Straus' plans, which would preserve the brownstone facades but essentially create one big building behind them topped with a series of boxy terracotta additions of varying colors. Members said the development didn't fit in with the neighborhood's fabric.

"We felt it was not contextual within the historic district," Jane Parshall, CB 8's Landmarks Committee co-chair, told her fellow board members last Wednesday. Amid the Beaux-Arts buildings and the Whitney's Brutalist-style museum, she said, "They're plunking a non-descript condo on top of it."

Straus plans to tear down one of the brownstones, which he said had been overhauled enough to strip it of historic significance, and fill that gap in with a portion of the new condo building. He will preserve the facades of the five historic brownstones but gut their insides to create a condo with fewer than 15 large family-sized apartments.

He added that he hired well-known architecture firm Beyer Blinder Belle, which specializes in preservation, to design a "first class" building, he said.

The Whitney had gotten approval in the past to tear down this building in order to create a new entrance, much to the chagrin of preservationists.

The museum sold the properties to prepare — and help fund — its move to the Meatpacking District.

The museum had previously tussled with the community board over plans to expand its Madison Ave. home. The Whitney wanted to build an addition onto its famous Marcel Breuer-designed building at 945 Madison Ave., but ultimately decided to let the Metropolitan Museum of Art move into the property in 2015 when the Whitney moves to its new Gansevoort Street location.

The Met is expected to use the space to present exhibitions from its modern and contemporary collections.

Straus also plans to tear down a one-story structure on East 74th Street and add a new entrance with a glass canopy — a detail that enraged some residents who believe the glass is out of context with the neighborhood.

The renderings, which were given to the community board but have not been released publicly, show that the additions will be set back from the street.

Along Madison Avenue, the first level would be set back 17 feet, the next level an additional 17 feet beyond that, and the third level set back another 22 feet — making the addition barely visible from the street level, project spokeswoman Kathleen Cudahy said. On the narrower 74th Street, the additional stories would be more visible.

"It will be kept below the Whitney wall," Straus said at the meeting, noting that the building will be shorter than its neighbor.

The building would rise four stories above the brownstone's existing six floors, to roughly 100 feet, according to the plans.

"They will have large family units to keep traffic low," he added. "It will generate less traffic than when the Whitney used the buildings."

Despite the additions being set back, many community board members still thought the building was inappropriate. They voted to approve the brownstone façade restoration but against the rest of the project.

The plans had no "continuity, balance or harmony," board member Marco Tamayo said.

After the board's vote, Cudahy said the developer would next head to the Landmarks Preservation Commission, where "it's not unusual for commissioners to have comments about design," she said.

"I wouldn't be surprised if the design does change," Cudahy added.

But Straus seemed unfazed by the backlash against his proposed design from some in the community.

"When I purchased these buildings from the Whitney last year, I knew the history," he told those assembled at last week's meeting.

The developer is scheduled to meet with the Landmarks Preservation Commission on Oct. 18.