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Yesterday's Landmarks Preservation Commission hearing over 980 Madison Ave. was a relatively staid affair. On the second floor of the Surrogate's Court building on Chambers Street, Lord Norman Foster told the 150-plus audience that 980 Madison Ave. was about one thing: regeneration.

But Foster, wearing a bubblegum pink tie, took it one step further, characterizing the Upper East Side as a neighborhood with "a tradition of radicalism." He compared 980 Madison Ave.'s role, architecturally, to that of its possible neighbor, the Carlyle Hotel, circa 1930, given the brownstones it replaced. He also cited the Whitney and Guggenheim as evidence of the area's "tradition of change."

About 50 speakers took to the microphone. Approximately half opposed the project, including representatives from Friends of the Upper East Side, the Historic Districts Council and City Council member Daniel Garodnick's office. The building is not harmonious with the area's landmarks, they claimed, and the glass and steel building will only lead to more, thereby defeating the purpose of a historic district. One resident compared 980 Madison Ave. to the invasion of the British Redcoats during the revolutionary war. Another said that approving the proposal would be "like the Philharmonic inviting a heavy metal punk rocker to join the orchestra."

Artist Jeff Koons, billionaire businessman Ron Perelman, architect Richard Meier, gallery owner Larry Gagosian (a prospective 980 Madison Ave. commercial tenant) and other neighborhood residents who support the project bemoaned what they called the change-averse stance of preservationists who oppose it. One Upper East Side dermatologist with a self-described "strong eye for detail" called 980 Madison Ave. a "gem."

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The 22-story tower certainly has interesting features that will cement the area as a destination for arts and culture: a 24,000 square-foot public art exhibition space and a 10,000 square-foot public sculpture garden. One can't deny the benefits of restoring the limestone Parke-Bernet Gallery building built by Walker & Poor in 1949. And we wonder why glass has become the enemy when, as historic-preservation consultant Bill Higgins explained, "by now the tradition of glass as a contemporary material that works well in historical context is one that has been established not by this commission but worldwide."

We also understand why a mostly low-rise district isn't welcoming developer Aby Rosen's project. We live in one of those areas ourselves and we certainly wouldn't want one glass and steel high rise to serve as a mandate for more of the same - we like our low-level buildings. Of course, a glass and steel tower is something we sometimes can't prevent.

Really, the heart of the matter, as co-chair of the Defenders of the Upper East Side Teri Slater put it, is whether, according to Section 74-711 of the New York City Zoning Resolution, the building contributes to a preservation purpose.

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So, are Foster and developer Aby Rosen visionaries or invaders? Should the LPC commissioners approve or reject the plan?

And, if you're craving more, read The New York Sun, The New York Times, the Daily Intelligencer, or the Post.

Photos by Jill Priluck