How to navigate Landmarks, in the words of former Commissioner Stephen Byrns

By Adam Pincus | May 30, 2013 03:30PM

Location is, of course, the key to real estate, but it is also sometimes a key to winning approval for aggressive designs from the Landmarks Preservation Commission, former Commissioner Stephen Byrns said at a private talk last night.

He cited the Hubert Building, which his firm BKSK Architects designed at 7 Hubert Street in Tribeca and completed in 2003, a year before he was appointed to the LPC.

While it was being designed, his firm sought the agency’s approval to build the 14-story tower, which as proposed was much taller than most of the surrounding buildings in the neighborhood. But it was not as tall as the building next door, a 16-story tower at 1 Hubert Street, he said, and that was the key.

“It was approved because it was next to a larger building,” he said.

Byrns spoke last night at the home of the The Real Deal’s publisher, Amir Korangy, about his experiences as an architect before and after he served as a commissioner of the LPC from 2004 to 2010.

Several dozen real estate insiders attended the presentation, including Diane Ramirez, president of Halstead Property; Bruce Mosler, chairman of global brokerage for Cushman & Wakefield; Gary Malin, president of Citi Habitats; Jay Neveloff, partner at the law firm Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel; Stuart Saft, partner at the law firm Holland & Knight; Kenneth Horn, founder of development firm Alchemy Properties; real estate writer Michael Gross; Robert Gladstone, the CEO of development firm Madison Equities; Roger Erickson, a broker at Sotheby’s International Realty; and Leonard Steinberg, a broker at Douglas Elliman.

Also, real estate tycoon and mayoral candidate John Catsimatidis spoke briefly about his plans for office, saying he wanted to bring more biotech and Internet firms to the city. One of the first things he would do as mayor would be to cut back the bike lanes.

“Bicycles are okay, but you can’t close down the streets,” he said.

(Neither Korangy nor The Real Deal has endorsed any candidate for mayor.)

Byrns also noted that, in addition to context, sometimes the commission is swayed by artful arguments.

In another project Byrns’ firm handled before he was on the commission, BKSK did a complex renovation of the Fischer Mills buildings at 393-397 Greenwich Street in Tribeca, and won approval to transfer floor space that was lost when the developer cut a courtyard into the Civil War-era building to add floors above.

The commission was “basically bamboozled, at the time,” he said.

While a commissioner, he reviewed designs from developers such as Aby Rosen and weighed in on plans including the city’s demolition of a low building under the Brooklyn Bridge and the construction of a partner building for the Carhart Mansion at 3 East 95th Street.

He expressed regret that the commission had voted to demolish the Purchase Building underneath the Brooklyn Bridge.

“Man had never walked as high in New York on a man-made structure,” he said of the bridge, and the low buildings underneath provided context for its large size.

Byrns also spoke of a proposal to put 50,000 square feet of retail space in the cellar and sub-cellar of The Iconic Plaza Hotel at 768 Fifth Avenue. The burden was on developer El-Ad Group to “prove extreme preservation,” he said. Byrns suggested to El-Ad that they restore the original Tiffany dome in the hotel’s Palm Court, which had been in place before Conrad Hilton’s extensive renovations. The $6.5 million renovation of The Palm Court was completed in 2008.

Additional reporting by Hiten Samtani