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15 Penn Plaza: The Great Giveaway

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The Sunday Times carried dueling quotes on the City Council's decision to upzone an entire block of mid-Manhattan so that a new office tower, over 1,200 feet tall (just 30 feet short of the Empire State Building) could be built on the site of the Hotel Pennsylvania, opposite the underground railroad station.

The original Pennsylvania Station, an architectural treasure designed by McKim, Mead and White and completed in 1910, was demolished in 1963 to make way for the nondescript office building numbered 2 Penn Plaza. The loss of Penn Station was the impetus for the creation of the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1965, Mayor Wagner's last year in office.

The Times quote in support of the proposed tower came from Mitchell L. Moss, a policy adviser to Mayor Bloomberg: "People don't come to New York to visit caves. They want the views, the height, the experience of tall buildings. Skyscrapers allow us to make the best use of a limited amount of land."

The opposition quote was a snippet from my testimony at the public hearing on the matter, in which I called the proposed 15 Penn Plaza: "An assault on the Empire State Building and the New York City skyline."

The subject deserves more attention than that fragment of a sentence. We write today to explain why we are opposed to the package of variances granted for this behemoth of a building.

At the hearing of the Council's Zoning Subcommittee on August 23, one issue was whether the new tower would block views of the famous and iconic Empire State Building, which is just two blocks from the proposed tower. Very different photoshopped maps were displayed to show that the new building would, or would not, block the view of the Empire State, which was compared at the meeting to the Eiffel Tower. In fact, the tower would significantly impair view of the Empire State from the west, including New Jersey, and would slightly detract from the view of the building from other directions. Vice versa, of course, with regard to the view from the skyscraper's observation deck.

Yet the skyline of New York City is ever-changing, and as generations of New Yorkers know, your view lasts as long as the owner of the lot next door allows. Property owners can build as of right on their land, consistent with zoning codes and city regulations.

In this case, however, the proposed tower was far outside the zoning codes, and required five separate changes in the law to give the developer the height and bulk of the building that he wanted to erect. That is why the Community Board and the City Council were involved under the city's Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (sometimes affectionately called ULURP).

If it is built, the proposed Penn Tower would have 56% more bulk than the zoning code would have permitted without discretionary bonuses. That comes out to almost a million square feet of additional office space. The variances granted to the developer also eliminate the setback regulations typically required for buildings of this size, thereby aggravating the impact upon the skyline from the perspective of New Jersey. The glare from night lighting of the financial tenants will further impact the view of the iconic Empire State Building from the east.

The first agency to weigh in on the project was Community Board 5, which represents midtown residents and businesses. Some community boards are viscerally anti-development, worshiping existing land use even if they had condemned the architecture of the buildings they later came to treasure (e.g. the Huntington Hartford Gallery). Board 5, however, is generally sympathetic to development and reflects the moderate views of its upscale community.

The Board held two public hearings and voted to oppose the project, 36 to 1, which is, for a community board, an overwhelming margin. They did not act at the behest of rival developers or NIMBY (not in my back yard) devotees. Board Five stated its objections on June 11 in a letter to Amanda Burden, chair of the City Planning Commission. Read their letter:

The Board does not oppose this project per se. However, we have serious concerns about the building's proposed size, possible only through the granting of special permits, in an application that offers few public benefits in exchange.

First, in exchange for a 20% transit bonus, the applicant's proposal includes the restoration and reopening of the Gimbel's Passageway plus various other access and egress improvements, all of which we applaud. But as we note in our resolution, some of these improvements are either self-serving or mandated, and thus not sufficient for the 474,000 square feet received in exchange.

Second, Community Board Five is deeply troubled by this application's request for midblock up-zoning (from a C6-4.5 to a C6-6) adding another 266,000 square feet to an application that lacks many confirmed details, including building size, height, tenancy, construction timetable or financing plans. The applicant conceded to us that it could be many years before any development scenario might move forward. Yet if granted, the upzoining would be permanent and remain with the zoning lot regardless of future development plans or even if the lot were to be sold.

Third, we ask that the Commission evaluate this application from the perspective of consistency. The Commission recently considered the Jean Nouvel/MoMA building, and despite noting the proposed building's exemplary design and the lasting benefits that this project would generate for landmarks and cultural institutions, it voted to reduce its size due to its impacts on the city skyline and the surrounding neighborhood.

In comparison, the 15 Penn Plaza application wholly lacks the MoMA project's distinguished architectural features, produces no benefits for landmark preservation or cultural access, would have similarly detrimental impacts on neighborhood density and traffic, and would notably diminish, not enhance, the skyline position of its iconic neighbor, the Empire State Building.

Indeed, the proposed buildings would directly obstruct the view of the Empire State Building from the west, thereby fundamentally altering and diminishing New York City's skyline in a way few projects have in decades. Should 15 Penn Plaza not be held to the same standards and criteria as Nouvel/MoMA?

After the City Council approved the tower 47 to 1 on August 26, Vikki Barbero, the chair of Board 5, made the following penetrating comments:

The ULURP process has ended and the Council has made its final determination. We remain distressed and dismayed, however, by the level of discussion and debate both in the media and at the Council.

The issue before the Council was not principally about women and minority employment, as important as this issue continues to be in all job areas. Yet, if you were present for the Council debate you would have thought it was at the heart of the matter being voted on. The issue before the Council was not about a battle between two major real estate developers, as many press reports made it out.

The issue before the Council was not about the need to foster jobs during this bad economic climate, for even the developer admits they won't be building for years to come. Yet, a number of our political leaders used that bogus argument as an excuse to support the project.

And the issue before the Council was certainly not about sticking it to the Empire State Building because it failed to light up for Mother Teresa.

The issue before the City and the Council was, in fact, about far more than just one project on one block of midtown Manhattan. It was about giving strategic and prudent oversight to a section of our city - the area around Penn Station - that is about to undergo significant change.

The City has created the Moynihan Station sub-district precisely because this area of midtown is poised for major development -- and the City has a responsibility to prepare for it, to be thoughtful about it, and to set the parameters for it.

One development should not be permitted to set a bad precedent for the next, as we believe this one does by upzoning an entire block without a rationale and with limited resultant public benefit. A city as dense as ours, with so many competing interests, needs to thoughtfully and inclusively plan for its future and not let one wealthy and powerful developer override that process.

That was the debate that was entirely missing this week both in most of the media and, even worse, at the City Council. We were disheartened and discouraged by its absence.

NEW YORK CIVIC OBSERVES

Ms. Barbero is spot on. She and district manager Wally Rubin meet the highest standards of civic engagement. On this one, the CPC was clearly in the tank, abandoning its customary guardianship and attention to size, taste and design in its eagerness to approve the tower.

We believe that what happened in this case is a textbook example of unsound public policy, favoritism to a particular extremely well-connected developer, and lack of regard for the future of the commercial neighborhood around Penn and Moynihan Stations. To grant a massive upgrade to a property owner with no tenant, no financing and no immediate plans to build is premature and irresponsible. These valuable new rights will be for sale along with the property if the developer is unable or unwilling to build on the site.

Much attention has been paid to the Aqueduct racino and the unwholesome process used by the State of New York to select a developer. In this case, there is only one corporate developer. It is the value of the property, however, that is being changed by law to suit his particular demands. No one less well connected than the Vornado Realty Trust (owner of numerous major properties, including Bloomberg Tower) could play the system with such success and gain an unprecedented blank check for possible future development.

This is a case of the city making an extraordinary gift, probably worth hundreds of millions of dollars, to one of its richest and most influential developers. It is a top-down decision, clearly made at City Hall and not by the Planning Commission, which should have been embarrassed at the tricks they had to turn.

The point we make today was best expressed in 1764 in an insightful quatrain, which we have occasionally quoted when we believe it is relevant:

The law doth punish man or woman
That steals the goose from off the common,
But lets the greater felon loose
That steals the common from the goose.

New York City is replete with nonprofits, do-gooders, investigative reporters, and ambitious elected officials. Which, if any, of these guardians of the public interest will speak out on this issue, on either side? We will listen and report to you.

It is commonplace to denounce the bungling, self-serving scoundrels of Albany, who are a continuing embarrassment to the State of New York. But what does one say for municipal decision makers when their motive is not corrupt, but uncaring reliance upon the paternal supposition that money knows best.