To Save Powerhouse, Preservationists Take Aim at Riverside Center Plan

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By Dan Rivoli

As the mega-development Riverside Center goes through the public review process, landmark advocates are worried about the future of the West 59th Street powerhouse.

The powerhouse, sitting just south of Riverside Center’s footprint, provided power to the city’s first subway system. This Beaux-Arts style structure, built in 1904, has long been on local preservationists’ wish list.

The Con Edison powerhouse, a Beaux-Arts style structure, has long been on local preservationists’ wish list.

But landmark advocates fear that Riverside Center’s design—as it stands now—would kill any chance of reusing the plant for public use, such as a museum or a market. The project has access points from West 60th and 61st streets and open space throughout the heart of the project. But West 59th Street has curb cuts for loading docks and the below-ground car servicing center.

“Those are things that have proven themselves to be life-deadening elements in the design,” said Kate Wood, executive director of Landmark West, a preservation group. “If that street feels like a service corridor… you’re creating a psychological barrier between the two developments.”

Preservationists are looking to the future when steam power becomes obsolete. Without a designation, preservationists worry that the powerhouse could be demolished or stripped of its architectural integrity. A designation would keep the detail and it could be used as a community space.

“It would be realistic if part of this environmental review thought about what this building could become and try to make sure there’s a dialogue between the two developments,” Wood said.

The Landmarks Preservation Commission held a hearing on the powerhouse in July 2009, but nothing has been scheduled since then.

The powerhouse, owned by Con Edison, supplies steam to customers, including the Museum of Natural History and the Empire State Building. Con Edison has been against a landmark designation because the energy giant would be saddled with extra regulation that they say will hamper operations.

“Con Edison plans to continue using the 59th Street station as a steam plant and the Extell developers have indicated they want to be a steam customer,” said Allan Drury, a Con Edison spokesperson, in a statement. “Regardless of what decision they make on that, we will continue to use the plant as a steam plant to supply customers.”

Extell backs Con Edison’s position on landmarking, a spokesperson for the developer said. As for the condition of West 59th Street, the spokesperson said the block will be “vastly improved” over its current condition. Extell’s plans include landscaping and making the block wider.

State Sen. Tom Duane, a supporter of designating the powerhouse as a landmark, believes Con Ed can fulfill its duty as a power station and keep the ornate details intact. But Duane noted the project can change during the public review process, even cutting one of the towers, Building 4, from the proposal, if Community Board 7 gets its wish.

“The street life of 59th Street is still something that has to be determined in negotiations between the community, Riverside Center and Con Edison,” Duane said. “[West] 59th Street brings them all together.”

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  • Daniel Gutman

    Steam power is not going to become “obsolete.” Steam is used not only for heating, but for cooling as well, reducing the peak demand for electricity. The Con Edison steam system is also 50% co-generation, the ideal of environmentalists.

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