The Design Observer Group


Posted 08.30.10


Alexandra Lange & Mark Lamster

Lunch with the Critics: Park51 & 15 Penn


Rendering of 15 Penn Plaza and the Hudson Yards

For this second installment of Lunch with the Critics, Mark Lamster and Alexandra Lange traveled to midtown to visit the Hotel Pennsylvania, across from Penn Station and Madison Square Garden on Seventh Avenue. It is the site of a planned 67-story office tower developed by Vornado Realty Trust that would dramatically alter the midtown skyline, rivaling (perhaps) the Empire State Building. On the subway there, they talked about Park51, the proposed community center and mosque in lower Manhattan that has become a political target. In their previous lunch, they explored the recent renovations to Lincoln Center.

Mark Lamster: We had originally planned to have this lunch on Governors Island, to review the grand plans to reinvent that place as a public amenity, but events have overtaken us, and I think we both feel that if we’re going to be self-respecting architectural critics, we need to address the two major building issues that are colonizing attention in our city, and beyond, by which I mean the hullaballoo over the community center and mosque down by the old WTC site and the plans for a ginormous new skyscraper to replace the old Hotel Pennsylvania. We can get back to Governors Island in the future.

Let me begin our conversation by stating how angered I am by the cynically fabricated controversy over Park51. In America, there is simply no right to not be offended, and this holds especially true for a great metropolis like New York. What are cities if not places for cultural exchange? It’s been gratifying to see our mayor so heroically defend the project, but I’m rather surprised — or perhaps not surprised — that we haven’t heard from Times critic Nicolai Ouroussoff on the subject, or on 15 Penn for that matter. I suspect his predecessor, Herbert Muschamp, who was a Tribeca resident and so engaged in the rebuilding process, would have been the first to the barricades.

Alexandra Lange: I agree that Park51 is the sort of situation in which Mayor Bloomberg, with his no nonsense rhetoric and nasal Massachusetts accent, shines. He’s not letting the right get away with turning this into a security issue, and he is acting like a real New Yorker, letting everyone go about their business (porn shops, delis, cultural centers) knowing that two blocks is a relative distance. It is as close or as far as it feels to you.

It is that same going-about-your-business attitude, of course, that looks less heroic in the case of 15 Penn Plaza. He is right to call out the Malkins, owners of the Empire State Building, as whiners, especially since they started their anti-Vornado campaign rather late, but there are plenty of better arguments against the enormous tower than ruining the view of the ESB from New Jersey.

As an aside (and we will get to this when I make you go to Governors Island) I get really tired of the obsession with views in popular discussions of architecture and landscape. Views are a one-shot deal. An active park, or a building that makes the city better for the public, is forever. I care much more about what 15 Penn Plaza will do to Penn Station area’s already crowded, dirty, confusing streets, than what it will look like from the plane.

Rendering of 15 Penn Plaza. Image credit: Pelli Clarke Pelli

ML: Generally speaking you’re right, but in this case views aren’t unimportant either. We’re talking about the way the city sees itself and is seen by the world. The questions as I see them are, to what extent does the Empire State Building, a private entity, have the right to control the city skyline, and then is the addition 15 Penn would make to that skyline any good on its own merits? One of the great ironies of this controversy, and I don’t see it mentioned much, is that the ESB was intended to be a lynchpin for the entire lower midtown area, that it would attract other tall buildings that would amass around it. But the Depression came and that reality never materialized. Now we’ve all become so attached to the isolated image of the tower that we hate to see anything impinging on it.

AL: When you put it that way, the answer is obviously, No, a private entity can’t control the city’s skyline. Whether the city planning department should, is a different question. Between the controversy over Jean Nouvel’s Tower Verre on 54th Street this spring and 15 Penn Plaza this summer, height is obviously a question worth debating separate from specific developers’ interests. Do we want to cap our skyline? Or cap it in midtown?

Justin Davidson, among others, argued that to make Nouvel cut his tower down was to risk turning our city into a museum of itself. I’m sympathetic to the modernist ideal of always moving forward, but I’m also not sure we need anything to be this tall any more. Do we need the square footage? Can our streets and our transport take the new congestion? Is height the only thing that makes a building a landmark? I’ve already complained on my own blog about the uninspiring spires of One Bryant Park and its neighbors. These are questions that need to be up for discussion — by the critics, by the city — when major players like Hines and Vornado aren’t throwing money around.

I was actually in favor of reducing the Tower Verre, but for historical and zoning reasons rather than sentiment about the ESB (maintaining lower heights mid-block, the air rights shenanigans with St. Thomas Church and the University Club that gave Hines, the tower’s developer, the right to build bigger). But having cut down a tower on 54th by 200 feet, the City Planning Department shouldn’t sit by while a taller building, inferior in design, goes up 20 blocks south.

Rendering of Park51

ML: I’m a big Justin Davidson fan, but the fallacy of that thinking is that New York’s special energy comes from its buildings, and not from the amazing, diverse, brilliant, crazy people who live here. New Yorkers are what will keep this place from becoming a museum. And therein lies the value of a project like Park51, which serves that diversity. The persistent encroachment of banal development, however, is sucking some of the life out of the place.
 
But anyway, for me the issue with Tower Verre was one of rules. We have zoning rules, and whether we like the rules or we don’t like the rules, they need to apply equally to everyone. In the case of Tower Verre, I agreed with the rules, and the fact that the proposed building happened to be by Jean Nouvel was not a reasonable justification for allowing it some kind of special French Genius Dispensation. What’s rather insane about 15 Penn is that it actually adheres to the zoning code, and exploits it quite cannily. It seems silly that this property should be allowed a 56 percent (!) bonus because it’s adjacent to a major transit hub and the developers are making a variety of accommodations. The $100 million in transportation renovations Vornado is kicking in will create some very real improvements to the area, but they don’t necessarily assuage all the extra square footage and skyline-hogging bulk. Also, you can’t put all kinds of new pressure on the transit system and then ask for a pat on the back for making sure it doesn’t totally collapse the day you open for business. More to the point, Penn Station needs a massive and comprehensively planned overhaul. It’s not a pig that needs more lipstick.

AL: I agree with all of that. Even in the glory days of the plaza bonus in the 1960s and 1970s, when a mid-block, all-but-hidden passage with a tiny tree sign indicating it was public space could get you extra floors, we were never talking 56 percent. What Vornado is “giving” us is what they should be required to do. Their building isn’t going to be attractive to tenants unless they renovate the transport and paths to it. 
The craziness of piling tower on tower in one of the most congested parts of the city reminds me of the oft-ignored community objections to the original Atlantic Yards scheme. Sure, it is great to put an arena on top of a transit hub, but only if it is a transit hub (and an intersection, for that matter) that has extra capacity. The reason the Citibank tower still sits in lonely splendor in Long Island City is an earlier administration’s attempt to spread the office worker wealth, not concentrate it. Unfortunately, it didn’t really work. Or hasn’t worked yet.

The rendering of 15 Penn Plaza that really flabbergasted me was the one showing it in context — the context of a built-out Hudson Yards, remodeled Madison Square Garden, opened Moynihan Station. Are we still believing all of that? Sure, 15 Penn Plaza doesn’t look so big then, but that’s hardly justification for approving it now. Are all those people in Hudson Yards really going to use their one measly subway station, or are they too going to troop over to 34th Street and Seventh and Eighth Avenues? It is a rendering both sneaky and mean: sneaky because it makes millions of square feet for which no one can currently pay look like a fait accompli, and mean because it shows their tower will be better located than the ones rival Related Companies might build on the west side.

And, who needs any of this when there are half-empty office towers on the corner of 42nd and Eighth, and a little thing called One World Trade downtown?

ML: My chief hope is that Hudson Yards doesn’t become another Riverside South — that is, another architecturally uninspired mega-development largely divorced from the city around it. 

But what scares me about the rendering you mention is how puny it makes the beast that is One Penn Plaza appear. That thing is an absolute monster. But the truth is, as much as we’re picking on Vornado, I don’t really blame them for exploiting the rules and, in fact, taking some positive step in terms of mass transit. They’re developers, after all. And Rafael Pelli talks a good game. It’s always entertaining to follow along as he so eloquently explains how his massive commercial projects are actually environmentally sensitive enhancements to the cityscape. Certainly, I won’t be mourning the loss of the Hotel Pennsylvania, one of the seediest hives in the five boroughs. I didn’t realize it was a McKim, Mead & White production until you’d mentioned it. Lord knows that if any one of that triumvirate came back to see what was living on in their name — not to mention the crime across the street where their great station once stood — they’d Howard Roark the thing into oblivion. 
The entrance to Hotel Pennsylvania

AL: It is today one of the creepiest places I have recently been in New York, the Port Authority of hotels. Between the brown-on-brown-on-brass décor, the forest of giant wheelie suitcases, the panhandlers and the prostitutes, we could not get out of there fast enough. Or stand to have lunch at the on-premises Statler Grill. One of the greatest indignities to McKim, Mead & White’s building is the Tim Horton’s wedged between two columns on the portico. It’s a good representation of how far the building has fallen, and how most architecture in that neighborhood is treated: as a shabby backdrop to commercial signs. Which is to say, good riddance.

Rafael Pelli is indeed very charming. But who knows if he’ll be the architect if and when the behemoth is built. What scares me about this deal is that everything is unknown except for its square footage. Someday Vornado might build something that tall on this site. But who knows when, and who knows how the city and the micro-neighborhood might have changed by then. Why approve this now?

Even for a rendering done in hopes of future work, the Pelli Clarke Pelli building is shockingly lazy, a rehash of their recent work resized to fit. When I tweeted my dismay last week I got a number of suggestions of which other contemporary Pelli building it most resembled, among them the Transbay Terminal Tower in San Francisco and another skyscraper in Hong Kong. I don’t believe in a French Genius Dispensation either, but I’d like to see the ESB trumped (no pun intended) by something worthy.
 
ML: Well, I’m not sure anything can top the ESB, but I think we can both agree that the day Tim Hortons slings its last cheddar cheese bagel at the Hotel Pennsylvania will be a most happy one. And that a daring new something-or-other at 15 Penn Plaza would be a welcome addition to the skyline. Fingers crossed.