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The Empire State Building vs. 15 Penn Plaza: the battle over views recalls Miss Brooklyn vs. the Willy B (except there were promises from FCR)

After a hearing yesterday, the New York City Council is expected to vote Wednesday to approve a new, 1216-foot tower, 15 Penn Plaza, across the street from Penn Station and two blocks away from the iconic, 1250-foot Empire State Building (ESB).

The ESB's owner, Anthony Malkin [updated], protests that the new tower would block a unique asset on the city's skyline--an argument that depends, of course, on perspective, as the renderings below (via the Times) suggest.

And the campaign against that new tower by the ESB's owner, on a web site and in full-page newspaper ads, sounds a little like the criticisms about the impact of Frank Gehry's Miss Brooklyn tower on the iconic Williamsburgh Savings Bank.

There are a few key differences, however:
  • in Brooklyn, there was a much stronger case against the new tower, given that Forest City Ratner promised at the start that it wouldn't block the bank's iconic clock
  • in Brooklyn, the new building would be positioned on perhaps the main view corridor for the older building
  • in Manhattan, unlike Brooklyn, the owner of the older building spent money on a public campaign to raise awareness
The view from Vornado

The view from the ESB's owner

The dispute

From the ESB web site:
It is not ESB’s height that makes it New York’s most iconic structure. There have been and will be other big buildings in New York City. The World Trade Centers were taller than ESB, and the long-awaited 1 World Trade Center will be taller still. It is not height alone which defines ESB, but its place in the skyline and in the hearts and minds of hundreds of millions around the world.

The proposed development at 15 Penn Plaza—less than two blocks away from ESB—will dilute the distinction of New York’s skyline, our city’s public face to the world. In considering this development, the City Council is poised to rule on an adverse impact on the public face of New York to the world. The impact of 15 Penn Plaza as proposed on the unique setting of New York City’s largest Landmark has to be prominently considered.

This is not about banning tall buildings, but about preserving the very uniqueness of the New York City skyline with ESB visible from its midpoint to its spire, its slender shape during the day and its lights at night, its iconic stature which has become the iconography of New York City. To set precedent to allow ESB to be crowded out by nearby buildings of equal height is to set New York City on a path of Beijing or Shanghai and drown out its uniqueness. Similar to the loss of Penn Station, but at a much more visible scale, this is a precedent which should not be allowed.
The likely resolution

This is not an as-of-right development (to replace the Hotel Pennsylvania) but rather a tower with a 56% density bonus, approved by the City Planning Commission--which answers to Mayor Mike Bloomberg--but disapproved by the local community board, which, according to the Times, cited the lack of a rationale for the density bonus and the potential for long delays.

Vornado would put some $100 million into transit improvements and, of course, has the support of construction unions.

The Times story concluded:
Councilman Leroy Comrie posed a final question at the meeting on Monday that seemed to foretell how he would vote: “Is New York City a snapshot taken in 2010 to be held in perpetuity, or is New York City an evolving, dynamic entity?”
Of course the city is an evolving, dynamic entity; the question, rather, is how and under what rules does it evolve.

The Post editorialized:
[ESB owner Anthony] Malkin needs to get over it.

This isn't an endorsement of the Vornado project per se. Given the torturous New York City project-review process, it's hard to say what the building ultimately will look like.

But it most certainly is a rejection of Malkin's bizarre assertion that his skyscraper deserves such protection.

It's NIMBY-ism gone mad.

Skylines do change. Alas, sometimes for tragic reasons -- as seen on 9/11.

But mostly for positive ones.

Great cities are organic -- vibrantly reflecting the aspirations of the people who live in them.
Except spot rezonings aren't so organic.

A budget caution from the Daily News

The Daily News editorialized against the ESB's perspective but did issue a caution:
The Council should shrug off his attempt to determine whether a skyscraper should go up based on how it would look in a postcard of the Empire State Building. That said, the Council needs to closely measure Roth's plans using a more mundane yardstick: money. He wants to trade transit improvements for a boost in the normally allowed scale of the tower. The Council must determine, in a transparent manner, that the cost and benefits of the transit investments merit the zoning bonanza.

His plan calls for building subway entrances on Seventh and Sixth Aves., installing or improving stairways, widening subway platforms and putting in elevators and escalators. Roth would also reopen a pedestrian passage that crosses underground from Seventh to Sixth, the Gimbels Tunnel.

Closed in the 1980s, the passage would be a shopping strip that relieves sidewalk crowding and provides climate-controlled movement all year.

All big pluses. But, as the community board concluded, most of the improvements would be necessary or beneficial to Roth's two moneymaking propositions: the new building and the Manhattan Mall. The planning commission ruled that Roth's transit investments justified a zoning bonus. The Council needs to be sure.
And did the numbers work for Atlantic Yards? Official city and state agencies never did a rigorous analysis.

The Willy B flashback

Plans for the flagship Atlantic Yards tower, now known as Building 1, are on hold, but, at as I wrote 12/22/06, Miss Brooklyn, though shorter, would still block the clock.

Forest City Ratner agreed to lower the announced 620-foot Miss Brooklyn tower a sliver below that of the iconic 512-foot Williamsburgh Savings Bank nearby, meeting the request of Borough President Marty Markowitz, who had called for the bank to remain the borough's tallest building.

But many residents also asked that architect Frank Gehry's self-described "ego trip" not block the bank's signature clock tower. To achieve that, the developer would have had to make a much greater sacrifice: make the tower even smaller and/or move its footprint.

(Graphic of 620-foot Miss Brooklyn from Final Environmental Impact Statement. Click to enlarge.)

And moving Miss Brooklyn, apparently, was not on the table, even though Forest City Ratner in its initial project announcement on 12/10/03, promised to do just that: The northernmost building on the site, an office building, will be set back slightly from the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues, to maintain the view corridor to the Williamsburg Bank building.

The defense came from Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), in the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS), which observed that moving the building east wouldn't be feasible from an engineering point of view and, anyhow, any private owner on that plot could build at that height. (Of course, the private owner is Forest City, so they could follow their own pledge.)

Isn't that called a bait-and-switch?

The Beekman Tower

Interestingly, Gothamist cited another Forest City Ratner building, Gehry's downtown Beekman Tower, which is blocking some views of the iconic Woolworth Building but not generating controversy, in part because it has drawn praise from architectural critics.

In other words, new buildings can coexist if they earn their place. Fair enough. Except there were no promises in Lower Manhattan, were they?


  1. andrew malkin ≠ the owner of esb. get it right.

  2. My error in trusting the Post, which had it wrong. It's been corrected--my apologies to Anthony Malkin.


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