Old Money and New Construction
In New York, a Proposed Condo Tower Pits the Rich and Famous Against the Rich and Famous

By Michael Powell and Robin Shulman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 16, 2007

NEW YORK -- To the ramparts, my friends!

An haute New York developer has proposed to erect a 22-story condominium tower atop the austere and officially landmarked walls of the Parke-Bernet Galleries building on the Upper East Side. And the burghers of this oldest of old-money neighborhoods are as revolutionaries to the barricades.

It's one of those marvelous New York moments when outrage trumps self-awareness, laying bare egos and ids more often artfully concealed from public view.

"If this tower is completed," complained Alexandra Donati, who lives in a Park Avenue cooperative where the net worth of members is counted in tens of millions of dollars, "it will mean that power for profit can overwhelm long-term conservation goals."

Then there is the aggrieved cry of Nicholas J. Sands, who happens to live across the street from the proposed tower. Like Donati, he has written to the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission, which could vote today to approve or reject the Madison Avenue project.

"Is there anything sacred left in New York?" he asked. "As the owner of a full floor condominium and private art gallery residence . . . which directly overlooks the building in full scale picturesque view, I would like to express my opposition."

One preservationist reported nearly passing out when word broke of the proposed tower atop the five-story art gallery, while novelist Tom Wolfe penned an exclamatory jeremiad against the project on the op-ed pages of the New York Times.

"It would be hard to dream up anything short of a Mobil station more out of place there than a Mondo Condo glass box," wrote Wolfe, who then executed a rhetorical pirouette and lanced the Landmarks Preservation Commission as "a bureau of the walking dead."

High on the opposing ridge, we find developer Aby Rosen, who calls himself a modernist and fancies himself a patron of the arts, and Lord Norman Foster, a properly British architect. They have recruited high-society worthies to their banner: perfume magnate Ron Perelman, heiress Veronica Hearst, celebrity editor Anna Wintour of Vogue (whose signature is three inches high and eight inches wide), a celebrity dermatologist and a few famous artists, not the least of whom is Jeff Koons. (Koons is not without a moneyed horse in this race, as Rosen a few years ago paid a record sum to purchase one of his artworks.)

Rosen and Foster cast themselves as aesthetic adherents of the progressive and the radical. Absent their glass-and-steel tower, they warn, young hedge-funders will shun this shtetl of prewar brick apartment buildings, where three-bedroom apartments retail at $5 million, give or take a million.

"You need to revitalize the area in order to give the younger generation who are seeking modern life and want to go away from classic building prewar," Rosen explained. The young titans yearn to "stay uptown close to private schools. You can't shut them out."

Lord Foster, who called in on his cellphone as he strolled to a fondue restaurant in Switzerland, framed the debate no less grandly.

"Cities either wither as they are preserved in aspic, as it were, or they regenerate," Foster said. "What is now revered by preservationists is the result of earlier transformations."

Supporters of the tower divine a revolution aborning. Financier Phillippe P. Laffont, who lives in an Upper East Side townhouse, urged Landmark commissioners to walk his neighborhood.

"Look closely," he advised in a letter, "and you will see that modernity erupts from every nook and cranny. Picture windows have replaced the original panes. . . . Floors have been knocked through to create larger spaces. . . . Isn't it time we gave true expression to this pent up desire?"

The plate tectonics of power in New York in fact are shifting. For nearly a century, Park, Madison and Fifth avenues constituted a world all but hermetic in its wealth and self-regard. As late as 1998, financier Steven Rattner could aver that he knew little of the East Village; his was a world demarcated by his vast Upper East Side cooperative, his office aerie in Rockefeller Center and perhaps a side trip to catch the opera at Lincoln Center or a Broadway drama.

The dominance of that world has faded a touch. Last year, Tribeca, in Lower Manhattan, became the most expensive precinct in the most expensive borough in the most expensive city in the nation. The vaguely hip stockbroker lusts for SoHo no less than Park Avenue.

"The problem for the Upper East Side is that it's increasingly looking like a naturally occurring retirement community," said Mitchell Moss, a professor of urban studies at New York University's Wagner School. "It no longer has a monopoly on brains, talent and ambitions."

Moss nonetheless views Rosen's proposed tower as too radical. A grande dame of a neighborhood must be led oh so delicately to her facelift.

"This is an idea that's 50 years ahead of its time," Moss said. "The problem for his Lordship is that the House of Lords doesn't have much standing on the Upper East Side."

Rosen is acutely aware that a war with old money is not easily won. (A Mellon and a Von Mueffling chimed in with hand-lettered notes of opposition.) He frames the battle as between the young and daring and "the conformists." He hints darkly that he could build an even bigger building and create a wind tunnel on Madison Avenue.

As for Tom Wolfe . . .

He "used to be, maybe, a good writer," Rosen said. "I don't want to say he's a struggling writer. . . . I don't want to say how many books he sold, but it wasn't too many."

A little later, Rosen talks a little compromise. Maybe he chops a few floors off, maybe he chooses a "champagne-colored bronze to be more contextual with the base." He just hopes the Landmark Commission doesn't toss a dagger into the heart of his project this week.

Whatever. Wolfe wrote his own letter to the Landmark Commission. "The tower," he wrote, "is a flagrant violation upon which the New York City landmarks preservation process was founded in 1965. But this is a new century with new money, new politics and bungee principles."

The sound on the Upper East Side is of an incoming mortar round.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company