Upper East Side residents who have been arguing over a proposed 22-story apartment building on Madison Avenue in a historic district brought their fight downtown yesterday for a fourhour public hearing before the Landmarks Preservation Commission.
A renowned British architect, Sir Norman Foster, presented his designs yesterday in front of more than 200 people at the Surrogate's Courthouse near City Hall.
Several chauffeured cars and SUVs idled out front as about 65 people testified for and against developer Aby Rosen's proposal to build a 22-story elliptical, glass apartment building as a rooftop addition to the existing five-story limestone Parke-Bernet Gallery building on Madison Avenue between 76th and 77th streets.
Mr. Foster said the project meshed with the Upper East Side's "tradition of radicalism," citing the designs of the Guggenheim and Whitney museums.
"The tradition of change is the essence of the Upper East Side," Mr. Foster testified.
A longtime resident of the Carlyle Apartment Houses, William Kahn, compared Mr. Foster's design to an invasion, similar to when the British invaded New York during the Revolutionary War.
"We all remember the outcome of that," Mr. Kahn said. "This is not evolution. This is revolution."
Mr. Foster's designs include Hong Kong's airport, the new German Parliament in Berlin's Reichstag, an addition to the British Museum, the "Gherkin" building in London and the new Hearst Tower on Eighth Avenue in Midtown.
The project received strong support yesterday from several prominent members of the neighborhood's cultural set. Arts patron and billionaire financier Ronald Perelman, art dealer Larry Gagosian, architect Richard Meier, and the former curator of the Whitney Museum, Richard Marshall, were among those that submitted testimony in favor of the project.
"It is thoughtful, considered and beautiful," Mr. Marshall said. "It would greatly enrich the cultural aura of the community."
Artist Jeff Koons, an area resident, supported the design and complained of neighborhood "segregation" based on style.
"If you like modernism, don't live on the Upper East Side," Mr. Koons said.
Several local gallery owners said the project would restore the neighborhood's cultural reputation and increase foot traffic from art lovers who now frequent Chelsea, SoHo, and DUMBO. The developer has said he would create a two-story gallery in the area's base, and create a public sculpture garden on the roof of the existing Parke-Bernet Gallery.
Mr. Rosen, the president of RFR Holding LLC, bought the Parke-Bernet Gallery more than two years ago, for roughly $120 million, with the intention of adding a rooftop apartment tower. The tower would contain about 18 full-floor units and duplexes spread spaciously on 22 floors.
Messrs. Rosen and Foster sat in the front row for the length of yesterday's hearing, as dozens of neighbors and preservationists blasted their design as a mockery of the area's character. One woman in the audience studied the details of the architect's renderings with a pair of binoculars.
The Community Board that represents the neighborhood rejected the proposal in an advisory vote last week by a margin of 20 to 13.
Preservation groups from across the city were united yesterday in opposing the proposal. Several focused on the issue of precedent. If the commission approved the project, they said it would invite inappropriate development on top of similar sites in landmarked districts across the city. Several preservationists said that approval would weaken the definition of a historic district and weaken the Landmarks Commission.
A co-chairwoman of the Defenders of the Historic Upper East Side, Elizabeth Ashby, opposed the plan and the architect's contention that the glass addition is in harmony with the existing limestone base.
"Vertical, glass, and circular. Masonry, rectangular, and horizontal. There is no relationship whatsoever," Ms. Ashby said.
The local City Council member, Daniel Garodnick, who would have an important role in approving the project if the design passes through the Landmarks Commission, submitted testimony opposing the plan. "A 350-foot glass tower cannot work here," Mr. Gardonick said in a letter read by a staff member.
A lawyer representing the Carlyle Hotel, which sits across the street from the proposed site, Ross Moskowitz, said the hotel opposes the plan and called it "a brand new building disguised as a rooftop addition."
After the hearing, Mr. Rosen was scheduled to head uptown to address the Municipal Art Society at its annual benefit. He and his wife, Samantha Rosen, are chairing of the event. Mr. Rosen has received accolades for his restoration of two landmarked Park Avenue office buildings, the Lever House and the Seagrams Building.
A representative of the Municipal Art Society submitted testimony that opposed the developer's addition.
"There is no plan B," Mr. Rosen said after the hearing. "Our goal is to build this building."
The Landmarks Commission agreed last night to keep the public record open for another two weeks. The applicants will have a chance to respond at a later date, and then the commission could make a decision as early as next month.