New York, Here is Your New Skyline

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The city that never stops building.

UPDATE: Council Speaker Christine Quinn, in whose district the project is located, gave her strong support for it at a press conference before today’s meeting of the City Council. More below.

The battle for the soul of New York—or at least for its skyline—was over before it even really began. The City Council Land Use Committee just voted in favor of Vornado’s roughly 1,200-foot, Pelli Clarke Pelli-designed 15 Penn Plaza, apparently unswayed by complaints from the owner of the Empire State Building, Anthony Malkin, that it would ruin views of his iconic tower, and thus the city as a whole. In fact, the issue of the skyline barely even came up, and when it did, the council members, who voted 19-1 for the tower, essentially said New York must build to remain great. “I think it’s a project the city needs,” said Councilman Daniel Holleran, a Staten Island Republican. The bigger issue, by far, than the dueling towers was that of who would build 15 Penn Plaza, namely MWBEs.

That’s the policy shorthand for women- and minority-owned business enterprises. The council, like the city, is majority minority, and so ensuring employment for minorities, particularly in the notoriously cosseted construction industry is often a high priority. When Vornado showed up at Monday’s hearings without a specific plan for how it would ensure a portion of the contractors on the project would be MWBEs, the committee members were displeased. Councilwoman Letitia James Albert Vann asked if the company even had any sort of minority hiring practices, to which the head of the New York Office, David Greenbaum, joked that he was not sure but had had a party recently at which there were many women, and his wife asked which were employs and which were spouses and he said, with a chuckle, that it was more of the former. James was not amused.

Vornado proffered a last minute MWBE plan before today’s vote, calling for at least 15 percent of all construction work to be done by MWBEs. Whether the project would have been torpedoed without it is hard to say, but it did little to assuage council members complaints at the same time they overwhelmingly voted for the project. James Saunders, one of the council’s lions on MWBE issues, made his frustration known. “This is a tepid response to a need, a very tepid response,” he said of the new MWBE plan. “We can’t go on like this. That we even have to have this discussion shows that there needs to be some real dialogue here.” Holleran expressed disappointment that the council does not use its limited leverage over such projects to extract more concessions early on than at the very end, when development projects have essentially reached the stage of fait accompli.

Not that it would have mattered if there was any real opposition, as the mayor cast his considerable weight behind the project yesterday, according to the Wall Street Journal [sub. req.].

“I don’t understand that. You know, anybody that builds a building in New York City changes its skyline. We don’t have to run around to every other owner and apologize,” he said. “This is something that’s great for this city.”

“Competition’s a wonderful thing. One guy owns a building. He’d like to have it be the only tall building,” he added. “I’m sorry that’s not the real world, nor should it be.”

Malkin was not at today’s vote. And perhaps its was with good reason that the council did not take up his position. As our colleague Eliot Brown points out over at the Observer, the skyline fight is not that disimilar to the one over the Ground Zero “Mosque,” in that it’s a supremely local issue that has been given over to if not irrational than at least emotional pleas for something locals could care less about. After all, we’re only ruining the view from Jersey. Yet again, the debate surrounding this project was only nominally about the project at hand.

UPDATE: When we asked Speaker Quinn about the merits of such a large, even overbuilt project—it’s 42 percent larger than current zoning allows, going from a 12 FAR to an 18 (though mind you the Empire State Building is a whopping 35, so who’s dwarfing whom exactly?)—she said she was fine with it. “I think given that this is 34th Street, 33rd Street, and 7th Avenue, one of the most commercial areas in the city of New York, this is an appropriate place for dense development.” (The project is actually located between 33rd Street and 32nd Street.)

Quinn even went so far as to compare the unbuilt 15 Penn Plaza to many of the city’s other iconic office towers, calling it a modern day Rockefeller Center, something the city needs more of. “Our position is about Midtown business district expanding into the 21st Century,” Quinn said. “As it is, we’re not on par with some of our competitors, say London or Hong Kong. In the middle of this recession, what this say is New York is coming out of this, and coming out on top.”

Quinn said that she was happy with the MWBE agreement that had been reached with Vornado while also stressing that such matters were not technically under the purvey of the city’s land-use review process. When we asked if they should be, Quinn demurred.

On a less demure note, Curbed is reporting that the real reason Malkin is so opposed to 15 Penn Plaza is because it’s potentially throwing off the feng shui of his tower, killing the “life force” of the Empire State Building and thus a deal with a business from Hong Kong to lease space in the tower. And now we’ve heard everything.

13 Responses to “New York, Here is Your New Skyline”

  1. T. Payne says:

    It does ruin the view. They shouldn’t build that monstrosity so close to the Empire State Building.

  2. Leb says:

    that monstrosity shown here is not the planned 15 Penn
    this is an Ugly and False rendering generated by the empire state building to argue its opposition,
    please go see Pelli’s building design and you will be reassured that it will not be a giant phallus

  3. ARCHNYER says:



    aRcHnYeR from SleepNY

  4. Gorillablack says:

    Not a huge point, but Council Member Albert Vann was the person who brought up the MWBE issue, and got the “dinner party” reply from Greenbaum.

  5. Matt Chaban says:

    @Gorillablack: Went back and checked my note’s and you’re correct. Thanks for the heads up and apologies for the mistake.

  6. 42si says:

    Not to mention that Varnado will be tearing down a major Mckim Mead White building the Penn Hotel. Now there will only be one left, the post office. MMW had built three buildings, starting with the post office, then east to the orginal penn station and then the penn hotel. I guess landmark commission approved as well?

  7. […] “New York, Here is Your New Skyline” by Matt Chaban, in The Architect’s Newspaper Blog. […]

  8. andrew says:

    Competition is good, we need a challenge and to stay current in the world of building.

    The Empire State Building is a Building, not a Monument.

    However, the rhetoric should be why Vornado is not making something bigger, and much more architecturally compelling. VNO should garner the support of Green, Tech, & Science fields, and they should win this enthusiasm of the USA public by striving to create the World’s most advanced and iconic building. A building that is a marvel, a synthesis of technology, biology, and the intelligence of material capabilities that are available to us, a new era of informed and quest-hungry americans, that can lead by example….

    or not.

  9. Sallan Foundation says:

    Disappointed that you didn’t say anything about the “greeness” and energy efficiency standards for Penn Plaza. At more 2 million square feet and with all the media attention, here’s a chance to showcase climate-responsible architecture. Could it be that Vornado’s building a 21t century tower with off-the shelf 20th century materials and technology? We already know the Malkins are re-making the ESB an icon of 21st century energy efficiency out of their 20th century icon.

  10. Jerome Morley Larson Sr EAIA says:

    It’s pay back time – Penn Plaza is just doing to Empire State what Empire State did to Chrysler building – change is wonderful – a major user at a train station is great planning – in a few years these two will seem as puny as the Woolworth Building. – we can’t let dipsy little Dubai get all the glory!

  11. Elsworth Toohey says:

    This is like having Adam Sandler star in a movie with Cary Grant.

  12. Benb. says:

    Why is all the controversy regarding the view of the Empire State Building? Almost everyone appears to be disregarding what I find to be most troubling – the demolition of McKim, Mead and White’s Pennsylvania Hotel for another corporate – cool glass box.

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