It’s always fun when high-society players turn up at local city hearings — especially when they’re battling with the commoners (and some of the gentry) over who gets to change the face of a historic neighborhood.
That’s what happened this week, as the New York Times columnist Ginia Bellafante noted, when, during a three-hour Landmarks Preservation Commission Zoom meeting, billionaire hedge-fund manager Bill Ackman made the case for replacing a pink stucco servants’ residence atop his West 77th Street apartment with a two-story, 3,000-square-foot glass pavilion.
On hand to weigh in on the project were a roster of supporters “that might make up a lecture series at the Century Association,” the Times said, including Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic Paul Goldberger, New York City historian Kenneth Jackson, New-York Historical Society president Louise Mirrer and Betsy Gotbaum, a former city parks commissioner and public advocate.
Although the proposed addition is being designed by Norman Foster — a celebrated British architect who, during the preceding, was addressed as “Lord Foster” — some on the call were none too happy about the plan.
But most worried more about the precedent an approval would set rather than the actual look of the thing. The fear: If this goes through, what would stop other billionaires from building whatever they wanted atop such landmarks as the Dakota?
The answer, of course, is the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which is not bound by its previous decisions.
The Times got a hold of one big-name opponent in Bill Moyers, the 87-year-old former PBS newsman who missed the meeting with an illness but registered his complaints with the Gray Lady. His fear was mostly the “disruptive glare” such a glass construction would produce at night, but he also characterized the fight in typical tabloidian terms: as a battle for the soul of the city.
“If the commission is going to cave to the glitter of one billionaire, there’s no hope for this city as a place where everyday people hope and live and die,” he told the Times.
Ackman took the stand in his defense, calling himself an asset to New York City who did not flee Gotham to escape its high taxes as others in his business did in the wake of the pandemic (he has for years lived in the nearby Beresford). On top of taxes he pays, he said he has donated nearly $100 million to “organizations that serve the interests of the city,” according to the Times. That is approximately 3 percent of his net worth.
It seems likely the commission will approve the replacement and addition, according to the Times, as it simply asked architects to come back with plans scaling back the second story of the penthouse.
Of course, it’s not the first time the rich and famous have tried to bend the commission to its will. Who could forget the time singer Nora Jones wanted to add those 10 windows to the side of her Cobble Hill home?