The Landmarks Preservation Commission has approved the latest design proposal for renovating the iconic 37-story office tower designed by late architect Philip Johnson and John Burgee “with modifications,” according to a release.
This is the second time the development team – the Olayan Group and Chelsfield – and architecture firm, Snøhetta, have tried to transform the 1984 Postmodern office building. (RXR Realty became a development partner in the project last spring.)
The first design proposal, which would have replaced the lower façade of the building along Madison Avenue with an undulating glass curtain wall, faced enormous backlash after its release in October 2017. The furor, including a protest which celebrated architect Robert A.M. Stern took part in, kicked off a fraught landmarking process, which ended in designation last summer, and delayed the $300 million project by months.
The latest proposal features changes to the base of the building with a series of new windows along the rear wall, a more than 21,000 square foot open-air plaza and a new multi-level retail space facing Madison Avenue. It was not immediately clear what modifications were included in the certificate.
Zodet Negron, a spokesperson for Landmarks’s, said the approved proposal was “conditioned.”
“They didn’t approve the proposal as presented,” she said. “The applicant still has to work with staff to get those modifications… then we will eventually issue the [Certificate of Appropriateness] permit.”
According to a statement provided by Landmarks, the commissioners require that interior surfaces and paving of the original building be retained and that the development team “restudy the materials and finish” of the new structures in the rear of the building — where an open-air garden is to be built — “to be more compatible with the pink granite of the tower and the Postmodern style of the building.”
The development team was not immediately available for comment.
The commission’s hearing on the second design proposal was held in two sittings on Jan. 15 and Feb. 12.
During the first part of hearing in January, the vast majority of members of the public who spoke supported the new design including architects like Richard Rogers, Liz Diller and even Stern, who said he’d met with 550 Madison team to discuss his “concerns” and was “impressed by how responsive they’ve been.” Neighboring landlords, including Reuben Companies, and the Real Estate Board of New York also spoke in favor the project.
Architecture critic Paul Goldberger, who disclosed for the first time publicly that he’d be working for “the past year” for the owners as a consultant, said the “saga of 550 Madison Avenue over the last 15 months” should be seen as “testament to the potential” of the public landmarking process.
“In response to public pressure, the building was landmarked. After that, the owners willingly and conscientiously revised their design,” he said. “This is what is supposed to happen. It’s an opportunity to show that our greatest buildings are living things and that change can be managed to their benefit.”
The renovation of the property began in 2016 after Olayan and Chelsfield acquired the vacant property for $1.4 billion from the Chetrit Group and Clipper Equity.
The developers initially felt they had to drastically reposition 550 Madison in order to transform the one-tenant headquarters that housed AT&T and then Sony from a “facility” to an “address,” according to Colliers International’s Yoron Cohen, who worked on the deal at the time at JLL.
Though the landmark process threw the project “off schedule,” as Olayan’s managing director in the U.S., Tony Fusco, put it, the project is a long-term play for the international developers. Olayan has said they plan to charge tenants between $115 and $210 a square foot.
In the release, the developers confirmed the building would “reopen” in 2020. CBRE is the exclusive listing agent.
Editor’s Note: The story was updated to reflect the modifications commissioners from the Landmarks Preservation Commission will require in order for the approved design to receive a permit and RXR’s involvement in the project was clarified.