If it were built today, Jean Nouvel’s spindly tower at 53 West 53rd Street would be the second tallest building in the city, roughly 200 feet above the Chrysler Building and as many below the Empire State Building. Even once the World Trade Center is complete, the Hines-developed, MoMA-conjoined tower will remain among the tallest in the city.
It was this skyline altering impact and the quality of its underlying design that most interested the members of the City Planning Commission at a public hearing on the project today. But if the commissioners’ thoughts were cast heavenward, the considerable community opposition to the project remained terrestrial and very much rooted in fears of shadows cast and congestion worsened.
Which side one takes depends largely on the arguments made by the development team in favor of the massive project. Having struck a deal with MoMA to buy its western lot—and finaly remaining development site—in January 2007 for $125 million, Hines has agreed to build roughly 50,000 square feet of galleries for the museum on the tower's second through fifth floors, and above that nearly 600,000 square feet of hotel rooms and apartments.
Hines and its land-use attorneys argue that such prime real estate in the heart of Midtown, itself the city’s densest district, would be developed at one point in one way or another. Thus any perceived impacts would be inevitable, and the developer argues it is providing sufficient offsets already.
The unique design by a Pritzker Prize-winning architect is meant to mitigate any major impacts, such as shifting massing towards 53rd Street and away from the more residential, low-scale 54th Street. And the deal to buy development rights from adjoining landmarks has left the Fifth Avenue end of the block under-developed, the developer argued.
To further prove its point, the design team crafted an as-of-right scenario, that while arguably too slender to be practical, would allow for a building over 1,000 feet, suggesting it was better to make allowances for a slightly taller, better building than to simply build this theoretical bland one. Impacts will also be lessened by the limited capacity of the project, which will contain only 150 apartments and 120 hotel rooms, less than a potential 600 allowed as of right.
“In terms of zoning, there’s actually much less on the site than there could be,” Michael Sillerman, the developer’s counsel, told AN after the hearing. “Just because the tower is tall does not mean it is dense. We could be building shorter, but you would wind up with a box.”
Jean Nouvel, himself in attendance (in an all-black suit) to defend a project he described as career defining for any architect, argued the building could be no other way. “The feeling when you’re a pedestrian, the feeling is of light coming down, not of a big, flat block,” the architect told the commissioners. “It’s like music, part of the rhythm of the city and the skyline.”
"It is a building for New York and nowhere else," he added. "It is not a parachute."
The tower won support last week from Scott Stringer, the Manhattan borough president, for these very reasons. “It’s less intensive than what could be built as of right, and we’re okay with that,” Anthony Borelli, Stringer’s planning director, said in an interview after speaking to the commission in favor of the project. Stringer’s office hopes to leverage the tower to get MoMA to address longstanding problems, such as congestion from tour buses and delivery trucks that idle on West 54th Street. “These problems predate the new tower,” Borelli said.
This did not deter the community, which still sees the building as too tall and insensitive to the neighborhood’s needs. “They’re putting a building as big as the Empire State Building on a site the size of a McDonald’s drive through,” David Achalis, a local resident, told the commission. Another, Ellen Brodsky, declared the project a loss, not a gain, for MoMA. "I see the transfer of what was once the cultural heart of the city into a greed-driven real estate development," she said.
As promised, John Beckman of Axis Mundi presented his counter proposal for the site, but not before attacking Nouvel's. "It's a glass spike driven into the heart of the neigborhood," the local architect said. He noted that his firm's work was half as tall while still containing all the necessary components MoMA and Hines sought. The commissioners appeared intrigued, but none inquired further about the design.
Instead, the commission's support seemed to lie squarely with Nouvel, so long as the tower being proposed was the one that got built. The chief concern was not so much how the tower might change to address community concens as how it could stay the same, ensuring that Nouvel’s designs and none others, even variations by the architect, would be implemented. Some called it “shrink wrapping” the design, a necessary precaution, it seemed, as so many high-profile projects have fallen through of late.
“What is to assure the commissioners and I that this beautiful building will not be transformed into this phantom as-of-right building,” chair Amanda Burden asked Sillerman. The attorney promised to work out a written understanding that would assuage the commission’s concerns.
While any discussion of the project’s economic viability was conspicuously absent, that seemed to be the underlining concern for the commissioners, that the very limited capacity of the project that made it acceptable could somehow threaten its future, whereby Nouvel’s design—like Frank Gehry’s at Atlantic Yards—could be abandoned for something less than satisfactory to the commission’s aesthetic sensibilities.
Sillerman insisted after the hearing that there was no reason for concern, and that the project would get built, though he would not say when. “Of course this project isn’t exempt from the market, but you want to be in a position to move forward as the market allows,” Sillerman said.
The commission has until early September to approve or disprove the project, though it could also suggest changes at a public meeting in the meantime. Then, it moves on to the City Council, where one member from an adjoining district opposes it while the speaker, Christine Quinn, whose district it lies in, has yet to take a position.