Taller Is Smaller?

Taller Is Smaller?

Jean Nouvel’s new skyline-piercing tower got a rather favorable review from the City Planning Commission today.
Courtesy Hines

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.

Nouvel presents his plans to the commission, along with Hugh Ferriss’ famous skyscraper drawings from the 1920s, which the architect said were an inspiration for his current work.
Matt Chaban

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 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.

Nouvel argues that his building fits into "the rhythm" of the Manhattan skyline, as seen here from Central Park.

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 —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.