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.
But in recent weeks, Anthony Malkin, head of Malkin Securities, which owns a number of properties including the Empire State Building, , 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.
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.