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Master Plan for Future Adaptations to West Side Powerhouse Approved

Interborough Rapid Transit Company Powerhouse at 855 11th Avenue in Manhattan. Image Credit: LPC.

To facilitate the continued use of the former Interborough Rapid Transit Company Powerhouse as Con Edison Steam plant, plan adopted to allow for rooftop mechanical equipment and the creation of entrances for installing equipment.

On January 9, 2018, the Landmarks Preservation Commission (“Landmarks”) voted to approve a master plan presented by Consolidated Edison (“Con Edison”) for the recently designated Interborough Rapid Transit Company Powerhouse at 855 11th Avenue on Manhattan’s West Side. The block-sized Beaux-Arts building, with its exterior designed by Stanford White, was built under the influence of the City Beautiful movement, bringing classical grandeur to the civic experience. Built to provide electricity to the Interborough Rapid Transit’s subway system, the plant is now owned by Con Edison, which operates the building as a steam-generating plant.

Con Edison long opposed landmark designation of the powerhouse, due to the already complex regulatory supervision of operating a functional power plant, and the need to react quickly in emergencies or in the instance of equipment breakdowns.

Landmarks staff worked with Con Edison to craft a “statement of regulatory intent” included in the designation report, acknowledging the realities of technological and regulatory complexity involved in Landmarks’ oversight of an operating power plant. The plant was designated an individual landmark in December 2017, after spending over 30 years on Landmarks’ calendar without disposition.

Gus Sanoulis, Vice President for Steam Operations at Con Edison, testified that the powerhouse plays a “critical role in the evolving energy landscape” of the City and will continue to do so into the foreseeable future. Sanoulis said the master plan, created with input from Landmarks staff, anticipated both short-term and long-term needs of the plant, and considered the preservation of its architecture. He said the plan will allow Con Edison to plan and implement future projects in the nation’s only landmarked operating power plant.

Short-term issues faced by Con Edison included the need to create access for the installation of large pieces of equipment, the ability to replace equipment quickly to ensure continued service, and the creation of cooling vents for new or relocated machinery. In the long term, the plant could potentially face modernizations of various systems, adoptions of new or alternative technologies, and further investments in substations.

He further stated that, as a power plant, a “plethora” of federal, State, and City bodies oversee the building, and approval and construction processes for major work are extensive. The master plan will eliminate the need to involve Landmarks in long-term planning decisions about energy service.

Preservation consultant Mary Dierickx stated that the plant has evolved over its history, changing from a coal-fueled electricity plant to a contemporary steam-generating plant. She noted that when it was built in 1905, the powerhouse dominated the low-rise industrial waterfront, but is now surrounded and dwarfed by residential towers. It has been cut off from the Hudson River by the West Side Highway, and has lost its original cornice and smokestacks, but the powerhouse still retains a great deal of original fabric.

Architect Michael Corcoran provided details about the plan, which he said provides the flexibility the plant requires, while protecting the landmark. The master plan establishes predetermined zones for the installation of mechanical equipment on the roof. The zones will prevent any visible impact on the building’s Eleventh Avenue facade, shifting the visibility to 58th and 59th Streets. Rooftop furniture will be set back as far as possible from the streetwall, at a minimum of 20 feet. Because of the bifurcated nature of the original plant, composed of a largely separate boiling room and operated plant, unified by Stanford White’s facade wrapper, it would be impossible to site equipment in the center of the top of the building. Rooftop additions will be limited to a height of 50 feet.

If any modifications must be made to the plant’s stacks, they will be sited to minimize their visual impact on 11th Avenue facade.

Restorative work is also envisioned in the plan. Window frames would be restored to their original appearances, and unsympathetic alterations to the facade reverted using salvaged materials. The work would be done on case-by-case basis. The plan defines how windows would be modified, if necessary for ventilation purposes.

Any new access door created under the plan would have arches to match White’s design, and original material removed when creating the door would be salvaged and stored if not immediately utilized elsewhere on the building. New entrances would be secured with reversible panels. The master plan limits the number of new access openings to five or less.

In response to a commissioner question, Landmarks’ General Counsel Mark Silberman said that if the property were sold to a private entity, it could not build additions to the master plan’s envelope, because the plan would be tied to power plant use.

Patrick Waldo, speaking for the Historic Districts Council, said that storing equipment inside the building should be encouraged as a first option, and recommended a 50-foot setback from street facades for all roof equipment. Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan read from a recommendation issued by Manhattan Community Board 4, urging that Landmarks mandate that it see any equipment before installation.

Fred Bland endorsed the proposed master plan, commenting that powerhouse was “a different animal” than most of the buildings under Landmarks’ aegis. He opined that any mechanical equipment at the rooftop should not be screened, but that their industrial nature be exposed. Commissioner John Gustafsson concurred, and said that as a unique “one-off” situation, the plan was appropriate. Commissioner Michael Devonshire commented that energy producing technologies were generally becoming smaller and more compact, and even if the additions are built out to the full extent the master plan would permits, they will not diminish the landmark.

Srinivasan praised the “collaborative effort” between Con Edison and Landmarks that brought the master plan forward, and she said the plan will permit the landmark’s continuing evolution as a power station. She said the “incredibly powerful” building could sustain modification without detracting from its impact.

The Commissioners voted unanimously to approve the master plan.

LPC: Interborough Rapid Transit Powerhouse, 855 Eleventh Avenue, Manhattan (19-19666) (Jan. 9, 2018).

By:Jesse Denno (Jesse is a full-time staff writer at the Center for NYC Law).