Altered state

Thursday 26 Aug 2010

Manhattan's iconic skyline at risk

Change is good. But not all change is equal. And this is precisely why New Yorkers are largely opposed to a 67-storey office tower to be built in the shadow of the Empire State Building, where it will dramatically alter the city’s iconic skyline and sadly not for the better.

Designed by Pelli Clarke Pelli for Vornado Realty Trust, 15 Penn Plaza, which was approved Wednesday by the City Council by a vote of 47 to 1, is a giant office building with few redeeming qualities other than the 6,000 jobs and the $15m in transportation improvements it promises to bring to the city. And yet, with yesterdays’ approval, it is all but guaranteed a prime spot on the city’s storied skyline where it will compete with the Empire State Building for top billing.

While the project has its share of supporters, chief among them Mayor Bloomberg who thinks the building will be a tremendous boon to the city’s economy, most people are against it, citing a bevy of reasons from the building’s underwhelming appearance to the harm it will bring to the Empire State Building – a structure that topped the list as the most beloved building in the United States in a survey conducted by the American Institute of Architects in 2007. In a poll conducted by Malkin Holdings, the owner of the Empire State Building, 85% of the people who weighed in on the new tower said it would ruin the skyline with 39% calling for setbacks to soften the building’s impact, particularly at street level. The battle over New York’s skyline raises interesting questions about design merit and the role it should play in shaping the city’s image, specifically how high the design bar should be for a building such as this one that will occupy rare air.

While Mayor Bloomberg has been quoted as saying that every building built in Manhattan alters the skyline, there are some degrees of alteration that are simply not acceptable. One such example is the demolition of historic Penn Station, which most New Yorkers agree was an unfortunate mistake that should not be repeated. But somehow the lessons of Penn Station did not resonate with those who approved this new office tower, who granted numerous concessions to expand the building 50% beyond what is permitted by as right zoning. The issue is not so much the design of the tower, per se, although I’m sure it is for some, but rather the design of this tower at this location. While many people said they would have no issue with the tower if were built elsewhere, the general consensus is that it simply doesn’t have the gravitas required for the address.

This area of Mid-town Manhattan is a beehive of activity, one of extreme densities at certain times of the day. Located across from Penn Station, the main transit hub, the area is teaming with people at rush hour. But at off- peak hours, the plazas and the streets are dead. Adding 2m sq ft of office space to the mix will only further deteriorate the street life, which in other areas of Manhattan, the city has been careful to nurture through programs that ‘pedestrianise’ and ‘green’ the streets.

While 15 Penn Plaza will bring jobs and transportation improvements to the city, it will do so at a cost to the skyline.

Let’s hope it’s not too high a price for most of us to bear.

Sharon McHugh
US Correspondent

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