Plans Shown for Woolworth Building's Residential Conversion

Proposed view of Woolworth Building penthouse, looking southwest. The new structure's green tint would match the color of the building's existing 29th floor and mansard roof. Rendering: Thierry W Despont Ltd.

Sep. 20, 2013

Here comes “The Woolworth Res­idences.”

Architects this month will be seeking Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) approval for visible changes to the 30-floor tower portion of the grand, landmarked Woolworth Building. A developer is converting the tower into 40 condominium apartments, including a 15-foot-high penthouse set into the mansard roof of each of the two “wings” of the building.

The Woolworth Building’s upper floors were first slated for conversion more than a dozen years ago. The Landmarks Commission approved two of its glass penthouses on the building in 2001—far more visible than the ones now proposed—but developer Steve Witkoff never followed through with his plans. Last year he sold the Woolworth's upper floors to Alchemy Properties for a reported $68 million.

Community Board 1, which is advisory to the LPC, vehemently opposed the previous plan (reduced from two stories to one per an LPC decision).

“As you can see it’s a great improvement over what was presented 12 years ago,” Roger Byrom, chair of CB1’s Landmarks Committee, told the full board on Sept. 24. “But this is the Woolworth Building, one of the most significant buildings in Lower Man­hattan, if not the most significant along with Federal Hall. So I think you’ve got to apply a very, very high standard here. We are only going to have one opportunity.”

In a nearly unanimous vote, the board voted to support much of the exterior work being proposed by the architects from Thierry W Despont Ltd.—with a few big exceptions.

The LPC, having seen mock-ups that showed the future penthouse’s visibility from the street, said the architects could do better.“We think it can be modified, we think its too visible and can be less visible,” Byrom said.

Elise Quasebarth of Higgins Quasebarth & Partners, a preservation consultant hired by the developer to advocate for the project’s design, called the structures “barely visible.” In fact, she said, they would improve the landmark’s appearance.

“The penthouse additions will cause the removal of the existing, really hideous and highly visible HVAC equipment on both wings,” Quasebarth said.

In addition, she said, new “cresting,” or Gothic-style fencing, would be restored to the roofs to help hide the additions.

Quasebarth also argued against the board’s objections to a plan to enlarge the windows on the buildings ornate pinnacle. The larger windows are needed, she said, for the top apartments and are 600 feet from the ground.

“Keep in mind the pinnacles are way up there,” she said, explaining to the board that “they are absolutely necessary” to meet the legal requirement for light and air for the highest apartments.”

“I think you can work around what’s there,” Byrom responded.

Finally, there was the matter of a proposed canopy over the residential entrance on Park Place. (The main entrance, on Broadway, will be used only by commercial tenants.) The CB1 resolution called it unsuited to the building’s original design.

“It’s certainly not something you see in Lower Manhattan,” said committee member Corie Sharples. “I get how a building on the Upper East Side from this era might have something like that. But it feels like it doesn’t belong here.”

“It’s exceptionally important for us to have something that marks the residential entrance that distinguishes it from commercial storefronts and the main entry to the building on Broadway,” Quasebarth argued. 

“People will find their way into this building,” Byrom replied. “They’ll know where it is.”