Racing the wrecking ball

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Preservationists campaign to save a once-proud Fifth Avenue charmer – as a developer tries to reduce it to rubble


  • The white-marble Kaskel & Kaskel Building at 316 Fifth Avenue, built for the custom shirtmaker in 1902, is the focus of a battle between preservationists seeking landmark status and a developer ready to swing the wrecking ball. Plans call for a sleek 40-story luxury condo tower to replace the 6-story Beaux-Arts charmer. Photo: Beyond My Ken, via Wikimedia Commons

  • The original Waldorf Astoria Hotel, site of today's Empire State Building, dominates this 1903 photo. Two blocks to the south (center left, with sign on top) stands the 1902 Kaskel & Kaskel Building, at 316 Fifth Avenue. Its fate is now the subject of a pitched battle. Photo: New York Public Library collection 

Preservation or hyper-luxe development? Continuity with a century-old streetscape or an in-your-face, skyline-defining tower? The quirkiness of old Manhattan or modernity’s embrace of the shiny, glitzy and sleek?

While those stark choices reflect nothing less than the future of the city itself, they are now playing out in a pitched battle over the fate of the celebrated Kaskel & Kaskel Building at 316 Fifth Avenue at 32nd Street.

At issue is a developer’s proposal to knock down the six-story, white-marble, Beaux-Arts treasure, which was built in 1902 for Kaskel, one of the city’s premier custom shirtmakers serving the carriage trade.

A 40-story, 535-foot sliver tower – housing just 27 high-end condos – would rise in place of the small-scale, showroom-and-headquarters space where President Theodore Roosevelt once bought his shirts.

Preservationists dread the prospect. They’re racing the clock to seek landmark status for the old dowager – as Los Angeles-based developer Cottonwood Management LLC gets ready to swing the wrecking ball.

“One single building can create a great deal of destruction,” said Mario G. Messina, president of the 29th Street Neighborhood Association. “It would basically destroy the Fifth Avenue view corridor from Madison Square Park looking north up to the Empire State Building because of its height.”

The glassy newcomer would doom Kaskel & Kaskel’s striking copper-clad French mansard roof, bold decorative work, marble cartouches emblazoned with the carved letter “K,” and other relics from an era when it was a crown jewel in the then-elegant shopping district.

“It’s a real beauty,” Messina said. “It’s part of the fabric of the city and the neighborhood – an example of the architecture of New York that made New York world-famous.”

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer agrees. On July 18, she fired off a letter to the chair of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, Meenakshi Srinivasan, saying she was “appalled to learn the stunning structure” faces the imminent threat of demolition – and would soon be replaced by “yet another high-end residential, overly tall banal glass box building” if LPC doesn’t immediately act to landmark the property.

The very identity of a 150-year-old neighborhood is “hanging in the balance,” Brewer wrote.

Then on July 25, state Senators Brad Hoylman and Liz Krueger followed up with a joint letter to Srinivasan arguing the loss of Kaskel would be “yet another blow to a neighborhood that is rapidly losing the buildings that contribute to its sense of place and character.”

In an interview, Hoylman added, “Another luxury condo is exactly what the city does not need. The idea of that building being replaced with a 40-story glassy tower developed by someone from Southern California is objectionable on the face of it.”

The scramble to protect the architectural and historical gem before it is lost to the city forever began on July 6 when Cottonwood and architect of record Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates submitted plans to the city’s Department of Buildings to erect the slender tower.

Six days later, the developer applied for a demolition permit, which is still pending with DOB.

“It would be a tremendous loss for a neighborhood that has already seen the disappearance of too many of the buildings that give it its unique character,” wrote City Council Member Dan Garodnick to the LPC.

The outpouring that followed shows how passionately New Yorkers often feel toward their buildings:

  • • Community Board 5 passed a resolution calling on LPC to “calendar” the building for immediate review. In listing the glories of the Kaskel property, it cited a 1902 issue of Electrical World and Engineering Magazine that said the building was among the “first to innovate using electricity and lighted store windows.”

• The 29th Street Neighborhood Association helped spearhead a Care2 Petition campaign to “Stop the Demolition of 316 Fifth Avenue and NoMad District!” A staggering 10,638 supporters signed up online, with 662 of them based in the city.

• Separately, a letter-writing campaign was launched by the Historic Districts Council, a coalition of community groups in landmark districts. At least 167 letters supporting landmark designation were sent to Mayor Bill de Blasio and LPC.

“In most other cities in the country, if not in the world, if they had a building like that, people would say, ‘Yeah, of course, let’s save that building!’” said Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the advocacy group. “It both captures and creates a sense of place.”

If there’s an argument for tearing down Kaskel & Kaskel, Cottonwood hasn’t yet made it publicly: The developer has not released renderings of its proposed tower. It won’t discuss its merits. It didn’t even address the status of its application for a demolition permit.

“Cottonwood Management LLC has submitted public project filings to the New York City Department of Buildings,” it said in a statement on August 3. “Cottonwood will be contributing further information as the project evolves.”

The Kaskel & Kaskel Building is “currently under review” by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, said spokeswoman Damaris Olivo. The agency received two requests for evaluation of the site from community members, as well as letters from the four elected officials and multiple letters from the public, she said.

But the clock is ticking. If an active demolition permit is issued, and the building doesn’t have landmark status, Cottonwood can legally raze it. If LPC decides the building has potential landmark value, it can calendar it for a public hearing and review, in which case DOB would be unlikely to issue a permit to take it down.

Bottom line: It’s in a state of limbo right now. As a landmark, it could survive in perpetuity. Without that status, it can be demolished as of right.

The choice is pretty simple, according to an e-bulletin from the Historic Districts Council. It asks, “Do New Yorkers deserve a district rich with history and personality, with small stores, human-scale buildings and a fascinating story that includes characters like Alfred Stieglitz, Irving Berlin and Zero Mostel in the heart of Manhattan?

“Or should it become an area of large drug stores, placeless fern bars and gleaming towers of solitude?”

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