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08.23.2010
King Kong 2.0 as Tower Topples NYC Skyline
Empire State Building owner takes fight over a proposed Pelli-designed neighbor to City Council
The developers of the Empire State Building and the proposed 15 Penn Plaza, designed by Pelli Clark Pelli, are fighting over the future of the latter.
Courtesy Pelli Clarke Pelli

The battle for New York City’s skyline came to the City Council today. At least that is what it felt like as two august developers, Vornado and the Malkin family, squared off over the former’s 15 Penn Plaza and its relationship to the latter’s Empire State Building. Vornado’s proposal for a roughly 1,200-foot tower was the subject of a public hearing before the council’s Zoning and Franchises Subcommittee, though much of the time was spent debating whether such a tall tower should be allowed near its iconic neighbor, not whether a project nearly twice as tall as current zoning allows should rise in the first place—let alone atop the site of McKim, Mead & White’s Hotel Pennsylvania.

That had been the debate for months, with only limited outcry about the loss of the Beaux Arts hotel and the huge scale of the tower, mostly coming from the local community board and a group of hackers that use the Hotel Penn for their annual conference. Borough President Scott Stringer supported the project with modifications, largely because of the transit improvements Vornado has promised, namely the reopening of Gimbel’s Corridor, which would reconnect Penn Station to 7th Avenue, as well as other improvements to the local subway stations, totaling $100 million. (While those improvements are a clear public benefit, they also earn the developer a 20 percent development bonus.)

Vornado showed this rendering at today's meeting, comparing its tower (center right) to Hudson Yards, Penn West, and the Empire State Building, to make the case that it is not the only project reshaping lower Midtown. (Click to Zoom)

But in recent weeks, Anthony Malkin, head of Malkin Securities, which owns a number of properties including the Empire State Building, thrust himself into the discussions, making his opposition known at public meetings and to the press. At today’s meeting, Malkin defended his position. “It’s been said we were late in the game in expressing our opposition to this project,” Malkin told the committee. “We were only late in the game in going public because we hoped not to make this a public spectacle, to sort it out in private, but so be it. We’re here as stewards to protect this New York City icon.”

Malkin said that he respects Vornado’s property rights as much as his own, but he challenged the council on granting the developer “half-a-dozen waivers” to achieve its plan. He also suggested that Vornado could achieve its goals with a shorter tower with setbacks, something in the 800- to 850-foot range. “I’m not concerned about the views from my building,” Malkin said. “I’m concerned about the views of my building and its legacy.”

A group supported by Malkin released renderings, including this one, showing how 15 Penn Plaza could diminish views of the Empire State Building, which Vornado says is sensationalist.

Vornado used the same argument for defending the project’s height and density as for dismissing Malkin’s concerns about it. “New York as a city has to grow,” David Greenbaum, president of Vornado’s New York office, told reporters. “This project has been fully, fully considered by the City Planning Commission, it has been considered in the context of SEQRA and the EIS [the state and city environmental reviews]. In our opinion, and theirs, there will be no adverse impacts.”

Greenbaum said that the Malkins were being hypocritical when they suggested that a development on the Farley Post Office, one block away, would be acceptable, but not on the Hotel Pennsylvania site. “If one takes that to its logical extreme, any building will impact the skyline of New York City,” he said, adding that abiding by the Malkins’ suggestion to limit heights within 2,000 feet of the Empire State Building would essentially kill development between 42nd Street and 23rd Street.

Vornado is restoring and reopening an old passageway between Penn Station and Sixth Avenue (top) as part of $100 million in transit improvements (bottom).

To bolster this argument, and beat back the renderings Malkin released last week that have been making a stir online, Vornado created their own, showing their tower in relation to Hudson Yards, Penn West, and the Empire State Building. The developers also showed a photo of the Chrysler Building around the time of its completion and one from today, arguing that none of the city’s icons remain sacred. Rafael Pelli, the tower’s designer, pointed out that western views of the building are already obscured by new development, which will only grow.

Pelli spoke to AN about the tower during a lull in the meeting, saying that it is actually much slimmer than the Malkins suggest, given its sloping sides, the modern equivalent of setbacks, the architect said. With a top two-thirds the size of the building’s largest floors, Pelli maintains that his building is not much bulkier than its nearby neighbor. “New office buildings are fundamentally different than traditional officer buildings, so the form will be different and the scale will be different, and typically that means a bigger building,” Pelli said. As for aesthetic, much remains to be worked out, but the architect pointed to two of his firm’s best known works, the Petronas Tower in Kula Lampoor and the International Finance Center in Hong Kong.

New subway, PATH, and Penn Station entrances will be located in the base of 15 Penn Plaza (top) and the Manhattan Mall (bottom), which shares the block and is also owned by Vornado.

Testimony for and against the project fell on both sides of the debate, with Madison Square Garden and the 34th Street Partnership among those favoring Vornado, while one member of the latter group and a number of local business owners—as well as a contingent of hackers—opposed the project. Henry Stern, the former councilman and Parks Department commissioner, also showed up to speak out against it. “The city allowed Penn Station to be destroyed, the World Trade Center was tragically destroyed—I think we should save whatever landmarks we have left,” Stern said.

The subcommittee members expressed considerable ambivalence about the project, wary about its size and impact on the skyline, but also noting the need to remain competitive with other financial centers around the world. Leroy Comrie, the influential Queens councilman who chairs the Land-Use Committee, seemed to encapsulate these feelings when he challenged Malkin about his position.

“I think what you’re asking us to do is beyond any one project,” Comrie said. “You’re asking us to make a policy decision. You’re asking us to look at many things beyond this one project.” His tone was severe, suggesting at once that such a policy was needed, but also that he was neither prepared nor even interested in formulating it at this point.

The subcommittee is expected to vote on the project tomorrow, before a meeting of the full Land-Use Committee takes up the matter. Council Speaker Christine Quinn, in whose district the project falls, has yet to take a position, though a spokesperson suggested she might at tomorrow’s meetings.

Matt Chaban