Lopped Off

Lopped Off

Poised to become the second-tallest building in Midtown—surpassing the Chrysler Building and the observation deck of the Empire State Building—Jean Nouvel’s proposed tower for Hines Interests drew wary attention from the City Planning Commission earlier this summer, as commissioners debated whether or not the 1,250-foot tower—next door to MoMA and in need of numerous zoning allowances—was worthy of such a privileged position on the skyline.

Despite being the work of a Pritzker Prize winner, the answer is apparently not, as the commission voted today to knock 200 feet off the top of the building.

“While the proposed design of the building is exemplary,” said commission chairwoman Amanda Burden, “the applicant has not made a convincing argument that the building’s top 200 feet be worthy of the zone in which it would rise.” The commission approved the building at a modified height of 1,050 feet by a vote of 9-0 with two abstentions.

Both Hines and MoMA—which would occupy the second through fifth floors of the new tower as part of a 2007 deal that sold the development parcel to Hines for $125,000—were disappointed by the commission’s decision, though they said they would continue to work with commissioners on the design.

George Lancaster, a spokesperson for Hines, declined to say what direction the developer would be taking, but made it clear that Hines was not giving up. “We will soldier on,” Lancaster wrote in an email. “It is not scrapped!”

During a July public hearing, Hines had dismissed neighbors’ complaints about possible adverse impacts such as traffic and shadows by noting that it could build as high as 1,050 feet as of right, and given Nouvel’s notable design, an additional 200 feet would make little difference. That strategy appears to have backfired today despite earlier indications that commissioners had been swayed. Indeed, Burden took the developer at its word, saying that the building could be just as good, if not better, at the default height. “The new building as modified can be a strong addition to Midtown and the city,” she said.

What continued to bother Burden and her fellow commissioners was the design of those last 200 feet. While the commission’s report outlined concerns such as “highly visible mechanical equipment” atop Nouvel’s tower, it does not appear that the architect would be entitled to improve the crown of his building and receive approval at the originally proposed height.

The other zoning waivers the developer sought—allowing for the building’s distinctive shape and the transfer of air rights from the University Club and St. Thomas Church down the street—are still in place, with the potential for the building to remain at 650,000 square feet, though the reduced height and parameters of the zoning envelope make that unlikely. Any new designs by Nouvel must return to the commission for approval.

Hines and MoMA are not the only ones irked by the decision. In an interview, Justin Peyser, director of the Coalition for Responsible Midtown Development, a group of neighbors and local businesses opposed to the tower, said the commission had not gone far enough.

“A Chrysler-sized building is still too tall for the middle of this block,” he said.