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Eye on the News

Josh Barro
Manhattan’s Other Building Controversy
Plans to construct a high-rise near the Empire State Building have sparked opposition.
24 August 2010

Cordoba House isn’t the only planned Manhattan building raising hackles because it’s “too close” to something. Yesterday, the New York City Council held a hearing on plans for 15 Penn Plaza, a proposed 1,216-foot skyscraper that Vornado Realty Trust hopes to build across Seventh Avenue from Penn Station. Opponents worry that the tower will interfere with views of the only slightly taller (1,250 feet) Empire State Building, located approximately 1.5 blocks to the east. That building’s owners are leading a public campaign to block the new development, including a full-page ad in Monday’s New York Times.

The Empire State Building has essentially stood alone over its 79 years, making it a rarity among tall Manhattan buildings. It was constructed during a building boom that led to a glut of Manhattan office space while the economy was mired in the Depression; after its completion, high-rise construction in New York came to a near-standstill for 20 years. By the time demand caught up with supply in the 1950s, there was little interest in building tall near the Empire State Building. Desired office locations in Manhattan had shifted northward—running roughly from Third to Seventh Avenue, and from 40th Street to Central Park. Most of this area is within walking distance of Grand Central Terminal, which handles 150,000 daily passengers from suburbs north of Manhattan.

Unfortunately, Penn Station—where commuters from New Jersey and Long Island arrive, and which handles about three times GCT’s traffic—lies south of this zone, in an area with relatively limited office development. Over 70 percent of Midtown office workers can walk to work from Grand Central; only 36 percent can do so from Penn Station. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is addressing this problem with the East Side Access project, which will add a new rail terminal for Long Island commuters 140 feet beneath Grand Central. The $8.1 billion project, to open in 2016, will cut commute times by up to 40 minutes. But even then, half of Long Island trains (and all New Jersey trains) will go to Penn Station. So the 15 Penn Plaza project—which would put one of Manhattan’s largest office buildings across the street from Manhattan’s busiest transit terminal—makes a lot of sense.

What is more important: preserving views of the Empire State Building from afar or giving potentially many thousands of commuters more direct access to their workplaces? That’s what the dispute comes down to.

WNYC radio refers to the proposed building as the “skyscraper next door,” but this is not accurate: the Empire State Building is on Fifth Avenue, and 15 Penn Plaza would be on Seventh Avenue. Some of the outrage about the proposed building stems from a misrepresentation of what it means to be “nearby” in Manhattan. The buildings only look as though they’re very close when viewed from the west, putting them within the same sight line.

Fortunately, the City Planning Commission has already approved a zoning change to allow the project, which exceeds the originally allowable size for the site. And the City Council appears likely to side with the CPC. At yesterday’s hearing, Councilman Leroy Comrie asked: “Is New York City a snapshot taken in 2010 to be held in perpetuity, or is New York City an evolving, dynamic entity?” His formulation suggests that he takes the latter view.

Many others, however—and not just the Empire State’s owners—have come down on the side of preserving views of the building. Henry Stern, a former parks commissioner, even warned the Council that the proposed tower could do “irreparable harm” to the city. It is hard to see how. The Chrysler Building (voted the favorite New York skyscraper of an expert panel assembled by New York’s Skyscraper Museum) has been invisible from New Jersey for decades, surrounded as it is by the skyscraper thicket of Midtown. Yet the city has managed to soldier on.

Saturday’s New York Daily News featured six man-on-the-street interviews about the proposed tower. Four opposed it, citing the impacts on views. Two others supported it, arguing that change and growth ought to characterize New York’s skyline. They’re right: what has made New York’s skyline so interesting and iconic is the freedom to build tall and build dense. But even more important is that the relatively unfettered ability to build has helped make New York an interesting and dynamic city, because developers are able to construct the buildings that enterprises and people need to thrive. Oddly, none of the News’s interviewees addressed the fact that more office space near Penn Station would mean more jobs and shorter commutes.

It is remarkable how many people seem to view the New York skyline principally as something to look at, rather than as a collection of buildings full of people working, living, and creating. Scenic views are great, and there are good reasons to preserve historic structures like the Empire State Building. But it is misguided to limit building density for blocks around it, on some of the world’s most expensive real estate, to prevent changes in the skyline.

Anthony and Peter Malkin, the Empire State Building’s owners, may well be as concerned about views from their tower as they are about views of it. Because of its less-than-prime location, their building doesn’t attract A-list tenants. It is mostly broken up into multitenant floors occupied by small firms, especially law practices (and not of the white-shoe variety.) Croatia and Senegal maintain tourism offices there. But the one thing the building does have going for it is fabulous, unobstructed views in all directions.

The Malkins have every right to try to protect these views. But it’s city officials’ role to recognize that allowing highly dense development around Penn Station is more important than making sure that Empire State Building tenants have pleasing views of New Jersey or lower Manhattan, or that residents of the metropolitan area have pleasing views of the Empire State Building from wherever they are. The city council should defend Vornado’s right to build just as forcefully as it has defended Cordoba House.

Josh Barro is the Walter B. Wriston Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a regular columnist for RealClearMarkets.

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