Op-ed: SOM’s Project Commodore threatens to overshadow Grand Central Terminal. But are concerns over its height overblown?

The Name Game

Op-ed: SOM’s Project Commodore threatens to overshadow Grand Central Terminal. But are concerns over its height overblown?

The proposed Project Commodore, a supertall tower adjacent to Grand Central Terminal, is facing a lawsuit that could halt construction. (Courtesy SOM/LPC)

Before climate change increased the average bottom-depth temperature of New York’s Hudson River by upward of three degrees, much of the river was given to freezing in winter. And on one such occasion, in the 1830s, Cornelius Vanderbilt is said to have scampered out onto the gelid waterway by himself, hoping to grab one of his steamboats and yank it free after it had become locked in the ice. He succeeded—he usually did—and as usual, he was doing it by whatever means necessary. The Commodore, as he came to be known for his riparian exploits (and not, notably, for any actual military service), was the archetype of the 19th-century robber baron: Turning his shipping enterprise into a railroad empire, Vanderbilt amassed one of the great fortunes of the age through daring, treachery, and outright fraud.

It may be wondered why the developer combo of TF Cornerstone and RXR Realty decided to name their proposed 42nd Street mixed-use tower after such a notorious risk-taker and universally acknowledged son of a bitch. At 83 stories, Project Commodore (a.k.a. 175 Park Avenue; the marketing handle is apparently tentative) is to be home to over 2 million square feet of offices, 10,000 square feet of retail, and a 500-key Hyatt hotel. Assuming all goes well, it is expected to open for business long about 2030, by which time, its backers have to hope, the city will be able to absorb a gargantuan influx of high-end commercial real estate—a gamble the old tycoon would probably appreciate, but one that seems especially dicey given the incipient post-COVID glut in the market. At the same time, unless the builders are banking on a collective change of heart, they are also on a crash course with a cultural climate in which yet another overstuffed luxury complex, especially one dedicated to the memory of Cornelius Vanderbilt, is not likely to be anybody’s idea of a hip urban destination. As it is, the whole undertaking seems to be standing on alarmingly thin ice.

A diagram depicting the base and crown of project commodore and its neighbors
A scale diagram showing the tower’s height in comparison to One Vanderbilt and Grand Central Terminal. If built as picture, Project Commodore would have the tallest roofline in New York City. (Courtesy SOM/LPC)

The development’s prospects for success may have been overlooked in the rush of opinions about its appearance, intensifying in recent weeks following the building’s approval by the Landmarks Preservation Commission in late February. There’s a reason for that: The tower, a project of the New York office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, is really, really big. If completed as designed, it will be second only to One World Trade Center among skyscrapers in New York City, taller still if measured by highest occupied floor, and unlike the erstwhile “Freedom Tower” (a lesson there about ill-fated naming conventions), or indeed most other recent major high-rises in Manhattan, Project Commodore does not boast a slender profile, with a height-to-width ratio of about 5.5:1 (compared with, for example, 24:1 for the nearly complete 111 West 57th Street). As seen in digital renderings, with its peacock-tail crown standing head and shoulders above the adjacent Chrysler Building, the proposed tower’s presence on the skyline makes it look like a linebacker surrounded by ballerinas.

But again, that isn’t what’s drawn the most ire to date. The chief criticism has focused on what the building might do on the ground—namely to Grand Central, which it directly abuts. The House that Vanderbilt Built, over which the Commodore himself still presides in the form of a statue alongside the southern facade, will now be hemmed in by 175 Park on one side, the recently completed One Vanderbilt on the other, and the MetLife Building nearly on top of it, sparking concerns among preservationists that the once-imposing station will be greatly diminished. This is overblown: Grand Central has always been at its grandest as seen coming up Park Avenue; from that angle, Project Commodore will remain safely screened behind the old Bowery Savings Bank Building on the southeast corner of 42nd Street.

The building’s thick trunk might not make such a bad addition to Manhattan’s skyscraper forest. So many of the new towers that surround it are members of a worrisome, invasive species: ultrathin supertall apartment houses, most of them empty, their floor-size units serving only to pad foreign buyers’ asset portfolios. Project Commodore is hefty because it has to be, because it is intended to facilitate something like a productive function of urban life, to provide offices for people who live and work in New York. It’s not heavy, just big-boned, and its bigness could be seen as an announcement that the city can still build something besides investment vehicles in the sky.

That’s provided, of course, that people want to occupy it. Across town, the pandemic economy has nearly laid waste to a different developer dream of ritzy boutiques and corporate workspace. Hudson Yards never quite caught on, its particular brand of shopping-mall chic jarringly out of sync with the city; now, the shuttered eateries and empty executive suites there will have to fill up again, and there will have to be demand for office space left over if 175 Park is to serve any useful purpose. Breathless predictions about working from home becoming more widespread will have to prove false, and the next decade will have to be very kind to New York in general.

From that perspective, the Commodore is a bold statement of optimism—though the name still rankles. Presumably, the developers were attempting to distance their building from its immediate forebear: The Grand Hyatt, which previously occupied the site, was an early project from a well-known local real estate magnate turned quasi-fascist U.S. president. He, likewise, had taken over the property in the late 1970s from a still older hotel, called the Commodore; the current ownership, in a misguided attempt at damnatio memoriae, ended up merely substituting one unsavory association for another. As it happens, however, there’s good news and bad just a couple of blocks away, where the recent death of a famous luxury hotel (not a good augury in itself) at least frees up another, more politically appetizing namesake. Any takers for “Project Roosevelt?”