Earlier this spring, as part of its plan for 15 Penn Plaza, Vornado Reality revealed plans to reopen the Gimbels Passageway between 6th and 7th Avenues underneath 33rd St. Although the company’s development proposal failed a Community Board vote and is still awaiting an anchor tenant, the City Planning Commission approved the building, and as Speaker Christine Quinn is a friend to developers, a City Council vote next week is all but assured. But if a group of people banding together to protect the Empire State Building’s place amidst the New York skyline has its way, 15 Penn Plaza may not get so high off the ground.
The problem is one of height and proximity. Vornado’s new high-rise, located just two blocks west of the iconic Empire State Building, would top off at 1216 feet. The art deco building at 350 Fifth Ave. rises to just 1250 feet before the radio spire and lightning rod reach to just over 1453 feet. The new building, fear landmark preservationists, will radically alter the way the Empire State Building is perceived.
“The Empire State Building is the internationally recognized icon on the skyline of New York City,” Anthony Malkin, one of the owners of the Empire State Building, said. “We are its custodians, and must protect its place. Would a tower be allowed next to the Eiffel Tower or Big Ben’s clock tower? Just as the world will never tolerate a drilling rig next to The Statue of Liberty, why should governmental bonuses and waivers be granted to allow a structure as tall and bulky at 15 Penn Plaza to be built 900 feet away from New York City’s iconic landmark and beacon?”
The various renderings — many of which are collected at The Architect’s Newspaper Blog — range from dire to reasonable. Take a look, for example, at the view from New Jersey or the way 15 Penn Plaza looms to the west of the Empire State Building if seen from the east:
The Observer’s Eliot Brown has more on Malkin’s crusade:
He first came to be involved with 15 Penn Plaza when Vornado began shepherding the plans for the tower through the city’s seven-month-long public-approval process, which concludes with the vote by the City Council this month. The size of the tower caught him off-guard, he said. He began to round up consultants and push for changes, including at the City Planning Commission, given that such a building so close by would significantly change the skyline. “We’re not talking about preventing tall buildings in New York,” Mr. Malkin said. “The question here is this tall building here in New York, being approximately 800, 900 feet away from the Empire State Building, crowding the distinctive skyline of the city.”
He is no fan of the design—he likened it to “an undersea ICBM”—and sees a decision on the tower as a historic one, saying it is “akin to the loss of Penn Station.”
As for what’s driving Mr. Malkin, it seems to be a transparent self-interest. He views himself as a guardian of his building’s place in the skyline, and, as such, he is protective of anything that might encroach on that. If there are financial motivations-and Mr. Malkin says there are not-they are not obvious (although he has raised concerns that the new skyscraper would interfere with his building’s radio tower). The Vornado tower and the Empire State Building would compete for two different types of tenants; namely, those willing to pay high rents for modern space at the Vornado tower (banks and the like), and those who can’t. Tenants at the Empire State Building include the FDIC and nonprofits like Human Rights Watch, for instance.
Malkin isn’t alone in his fight. Peg Breen of the New York Landmarks Conservancy expressed her surprise at the size of the proposed 15 Penn Plaza as well. “It’s hard to understand how City Planning could say that 15 Penn Plaza would have no impact on the Empire State Building when they already lowered a proposed 53rd Street building for that very reason,” she said. “We would urge the Council to look at the discretionary waivers and bonuses this proposal has received.”
As this battle brews, though, and the fate of the proposed development atop the Gimbels Passageway awaits City Council action (and the inevitable lawsuits), the altered skyline could come into play at 8th Ave. as well. As Jeremy Smerd from Crain’s New York York Business reported yesterday, the city, state and Vornado are haggling over the potential sale of 1 million square feet of air rights above the Moynihan Station. With the initial contracts for Moynihan’s Phase 1 approved on Monday, the air rights are the next big issue that must be sorted out.
Interestingly, an air rights deal could lead to a quick development at 33th St. and 8th Ave. If Vornado works out a deal, Penn West, a 67-story, 693-foot-tall tower above the new depot, could begin to rise soon. It’s going to get awfully crowded along the 33rd St. corridor soon, and the iconic Empire State Building may soon have some tall transit-related company indeed.