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Josh Barro
Manhattan’s Other Building Controversy « Back to Story

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At one end of the political spectrum, the rawest and shortest-sighted commercial interests demanded and won freedom to do whatever they wished with the inherited townscape, in the cheapest and most profitable way, so that harmonious assemblages of buildings centuries old suffered the most philistine and incongruous redevelopment that ruined them beyond hope of restoration.
GPS tracking
Single Kontakt aus Schleswig-Holstein February 06, 2011 at 5:24 PM

Rules are made to be broken.
To B Hemric:

You are right. Zoning laws are there to comply with, regardless of any excuses and/or justifications. The law must stand, especially in the current climate of disregard.
Many value the aesthetics of our city; the author of this article demonstrates no regard for how the city looks. In my view aesthetics should matter and be balanced with other needs. The author writes as if they shouldn't matter at all.
A few other inaccuracies appear in this piece. The Empire State building is physically located between Fifth and Sixth Avenue, making the new building on Seventh Avenue much closer than he suggests. He seems to have disregarded that reality in order to serve his position that aesthetics don't matter.
His position that the position of the ESB's owners is self serving lacks the awareness that Vornado's positions are equally self-serving. One negates the other.
Again, it is the issue of whether aesthetics in the city should matter at all, or if one should build a massive building in such proximity to the Empire State. I understand the author's point about the need to develop around Penn Station. Massive development, however, can commence around Penn Station without requiring that such a tall tower, rivalring the ESB in height, be placed right next to the Empire State.
I am pleased that Mr. Barro finds that the city has "soldiered on." I for one do not want my city to "soldier on, " but to actually flourish. In my opinion, a flourishing city is achieved when development is balanced with a concern for history and aesthetics. Such flourishing can only be achieved if the voice of those like the author, who convey no regard for such a balance, are not given full control over our city. Yet, not surprisingly with this Mayor, who has never seen a development he didn't like, that is exactly what has happened.
Many value the aesthetics of our city; the author of this article demonstrates no regard for how the city looks. In my view aesthetics should matter and be balanced with other needs. The author writes as if they shouldn't matter at all.
A few other inaccuracies appear in this piece. The Empire State building is physically located between Fifth and Sixth Avenue, making the new building on Seventh Avenue much closer than he suggests. He seems to have disregarded that reality in order to serve his position that aesthetics don't matter.
His position that the position of the ESB's owners is self serving lacks the awareness that Vornado's positions are equally self-serving. One negates the other.
Again, it is the issue of whether aesthetics in the city should matter at all, or if one should build a massive building in such proximity to the Empire State. I understand the author's point about the need to develop around Penn Station. Massive development, however, can commence around Penn Station without requiring that such a tall tower, rivalring the ESB in height, be placed right next to the Empire State.
I am pleased that Mr. Barro finds that the city has "soldiered on." I for one do not want my city to "soldier on, " but to actually flourish. In my opinion, a flourishing city is achieved when development is balanced with a concern for history and aesthetics. Such flourishing can only be achieved if the voice of those like the author, who convey no regard for such a balance, are not given full control over our city. Yet, not surprisingly with this Mayor, who has never seen a development he didn't like, that is exactly what has happened.
Richtea writes:

Unlike most Manhattan developers, Vornado got hit by 9/11. Thus, perhaps, some justification for recompense.

Benjamin Hemric writes:

Here are some questions that come to mind:

In what way was Vornado supposedly "hit" "unlke most Manhattan developers" by 9/11?

If they were "hit" "unlike most Manhattan developers" by 9/11, shouldn't this have been part of the public discussion (e.g., at the City Council hearings, etc.)? And if it was part of the public discussion shouldn't the media be reporting it?

Is the relaxation of zoning laws really the proper way to recompense a company for being "hit" by 9/11 (especially since the site in question is miles from the World Trade Center site)? Doing so would seem to me to undermine the rationale and the legitimacy of zoning.

Benjamin Hemric
Tues., Sept. 7, 2010, 8:15 p.m.
To BH re: tax relief:
Unlike most other Manhttan developers, Vornado got hit by 9/11. Thus, perhaps, some justification for recompense.
I see that Henry Stern has recently posted a very interesting article regarding this controversy on his "New York Civic" blog.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Henry Stern, he is a long-time, and very knowledgeable, "student" of NYC history -- especially its political history. He was a member of the NYC Council in the 1970s and he was for many, many years, the City's Commissioner of Parks. Also, at one time he was a member of the Board of Advisors, or something like that, of the "City Journal" -- I don't know his current relationship, if any, with either the "City Journal" or the Manhattan Institute, however.

In his blog post, Stern gives some additional information about the history of the controversy and why he is opposed to 15 Penn Plaza. I think this information is particularly interesting because in one of the "New York Times" articles (or NYT "City Room" blog posts?) that I read about the controversy, he was quoted as being against the granting of bonuses and variances for 15 Penn Plaza because of its effect on the Empire State Building -- the impression being given that this was his sole reason. But it seems that he was against it for more than just this one reason -- as seems to be true of some other opponents too. How can a city's citizenry make informed political decisions if such significant parts of the story, like the arguments outlined in Stern's blog post, are ignored or under reported?

Let me add that I don't necessarily agree with Stern's other reasons. From my perspective, they seem to be, at least implicitly, too supportive of OVERLY INTRUSIVE government "planning." However, the reasons he gives do have some similarities to the arguments that I bring up in my "Market Urbanism" posts mentioned in my previous "CJ Online" post in this thread.

Briefly put, and using tax policy as an analogy in my quick summary here, my argument is as follows: Is it really good public policy for a municipality to reduce the taxes of a politically astute or well-connected individual (for providing debatable public benefits), while keeping taxes the same for others? Don't such selective tax reductions encourage corruption of some sort and also distort the marketplace?

Here is a link to the Stern blog post:

http://nycivicblog.blogspot.com/

If the link doesn't work, Google, "New York Civic Henry Stern" and go to the New York Civic website. (You may have to try a few different versions of the NY Civic website to find the article.) The article is entitled, "The Great Giveaway, Gargantuan Tower Approved," and is dated, Thursday, September 02, 2010.

Benjamin Hemric
Sun., September 5, 2010, 11:35 a.m.

Anyone who's been in the Empire State Building knows it's stuck in the 1920's. Old facade, old offices, shabby tenants. It looks like it's owned by state or federal government, that's how outdated it is.
Usually I'm in favor of skyscrapers and high densities, but I think the big difference here is that the proposed new skyscraper is not an "as-of-right" design but requires bonuses and variances that would enable it to be about 50% larger than the existing zoning would normally allow. Although this angle to the controversy hasn't been given as much attention in the media as other angles, I think it greatly alters the nature of the debate.

For those who are interested in reading a more extended explanation of these arguments, please see my three-part comment, dated 8/28/10, on the "Market Urbanism" blog. It's a long-ish comment (but not too long I hope), and it's a dissenting comment to the blog post entitled, "Even Midtown Manhattan not immune to anti-density NIMBYism," by Stephen Smith.

In my comment I try to explain why someone like myself who is relatively anti-zoning and normally pro-density thinks the granting of variances like this is a bad policy idea.

If the folliwing link doesn't work, just Google, "Market Urbanism," access the site, and scroll down to the above-mentioned thread:

http://marketurbanism.com/2010/08/24/even-midtown-manhattan-not-immune-to-anti-density-nimbyism/#disqus_thread

So far, my comments are the last ones in the thread (when the thread it sorted with the oldest comments first).

Benjamin Hemric
Sun., Aug. 29, 2010, 6:37 p.m.
Ah, but that could not be - Mom T. was Christian, and they do not oblige any religious propaganda. Let the Malkins eat their cake, then, whatever the cost.
Furthermore, Donald, I would add that a good economist already sees beauty as a real value. A good economist is among the last to dismiss non-monetary values.
Donald, you wrote:

"All of the writers for City Journal seem instinctively to think that financial and other free-market economic values always trump non-monetary values, such as treasured cityscapes."

If you paid more attention (for instance by reading many of Theodore Dalrymple's writings at City Journal), you would find that your assertion about City Journal writers is simply untrue.

For just two counterexamples (there are probably hundreds), see:
http://www.city-journal.org/html/5_3_a4.html
and
http://www.city-journal.org/html/11_3_oh_to_be.html

Quoting from the second link:
"Britain’s townscape, once civilized and gracious, has fallen prey to an ideological pincer movement. At one end of the political spectrum, the rawest and shortest-sighted commercial interests demanded and won freedom to do whatever they wished with the inherited townscape, in the cheapest and most profitable way, so that harmonious assemblages of buildings centuries old suffered the most philistine and incongruous redevelopment that ruined them beyond hope of restoration. At the other end of the spectrum, radical reformers fanatically hated the architectural symbols of the past, merely because they were symbols of the past..."

My experience is the writers of the City Journal DO care deeply about beauty; however, they also realize that beauty is also just one good among many competing goods, and sometimes it may be a greater injustice to allow beauty to win over the livelihood of ordinary people.
If only the Malkin brothers had agreed to honor Mother Theresa with a window light show on her 100th birthday, as they have with all kinds of leftist icons, they might have had some saintly protection for their investment. Too bad for them.
Due to "unfettered ability to build," along with the steady decline in architectural standards, New York City has arguably become a little bit uglier every year since the end of World War II.

One angle on this issue that goes unexplored here is the influence on tourism, a major money maker for the city. When the Empire State is as buried in a forest of architectural mediocrity as the Chrysler is, will there be anything left to distinguish our skyline from Dallas's or Kuala Lumpur's?
Good point, Donald. Most coverage I have seen is also missing an important part of this story. The construction involves the demolition of the beautiful and historic Hotel Pennsylvania building which was built in 1919 as a companion to Penn Station. https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Hotel_Pennsylvania

We already lost Penn Station. Do we have to lose her sister building as well?
There are lots of competing, incommensurable, values, and this is just one more case. All of the writers for City Journal seem instinctively to think that financial and other free-market economic values always trump non-monetary values, such as treasured cityscapes. They don't. In this case I side with the preservationists. Once that thrilling view of the Empire State Building when coming into the city, available free for anyone who wants it, is gone, it will never be recovered. I suppose that if the view cost everybody something, say 50 cents a look, City Journal could weigh in on the side of preserving it. But as things are, not a chance! Why must the City Journal always side with America's most vulgar, greedy, barbarians?