Times Tower Moves Ahead In Age of New Realities

In the new New York, the struggle to replace the 13 million square feet of office space erased from the city’s inventory on Sept. 11 will likely mean fast-tracked construction for buildings around Manhattan.

It will mean huge office towers in our midst virtually inaccessible to the general public; atriums and other internal spaces kept private; sidewalk configurations and façades built to fend off street-level attacks.

And it will most likely mean smaller roles for community boards, especially when it comes to big developments, with economic, security and access issues trumping the importance of community say.

Until that day comes, Manhattan’s community boards are proceeding with business as usual, with Board 4 offering its approval, on Oct. 3, of a proposal for a new New York Times Co. tower just south of Times Square-even though it’s an as-of-right project, and the board has only the slimmest role in determining its fate.

The tower, to be built on the east side of Eighth Avenue, between 40th and 41st streets, is one of the projects being discussed in New York’s real-estate community for “fast-tracking.” It is also, by virtue of its anchor tenant, The New York Times, one of those most likely to be affected by the new security concerns.

Board members briefly discussed those concerns. Nonetheless, in a letter of support to the Empire State Development-the agency that will take possession of the site-the board urged that an internal garden be open to the public, instead of enclosed in glass and off-limits to visitors.

Board members also praised plans to build a ground-level auditorium for public events-even though such amenities may be luxuries in the new age.

And in another sign of this new age, the estimated 850-foot height of the new Times tower will make it, upon completion, the sixth-tallest building in New York, matching the G.E. building at Rockefeller Center (both would be tied for eighth if the World Trade Center were still standing).

Board 4 has traditionally supported revitalization initiatives in the 42nd Street area. And this one-at 1.37 million square feet, with a planned glass, steel and ceramic façade-is being designed by Renzo Piano, the 1998 Pritzker Architecture Prize Laureate who is renowned across Europe for his futuristic Centre Pompidou in Paris.

Because the building does not require major zoning changes and is not being built on city land, it will not be subject to the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (a legally mandated process that calls for the board’s input). However, there is a public-comment period ending on Oct. 15, which is how the project ended up before Board 4.

Besides urging access to the proposed internal garden, board members suggested that the subway entrance at Eighth Avenue and 40th Street not be located in the middle of the sidewalk. The tower will be set back to create extra-wide sidewalks on Eighth Avenue as well as the side streets; nonetheless, “we are extremely concerned about the flow of pedestrian traffic,” William Kelley, who chairs the board’s South Hell’s Kitchen Planning Committee, told The Observer . “I don’t know if you’re ever walking around there, but it’s awful.” And it will only get worse, with additional foot traffic expected from several other office towers being developed in the area.

That brought up the specter of an overwhelming cluster of construction sites-the Times Tower, the building being developed by Howard Milstein one block north at Eighth Avenue and 42nd Street, and a tower atop the Port Authority Bus Terminal-all going on at the same time.

This concern could escalate if some of these buildings are fast-tracked. But in the case of the Times building, trying to speed things up may actually be counterproductive.

The existing schedule allows one year, from the spring of 2002, for the relocation of tenants of existing buildings on the site. (Tenants of the 16-story building at 265 West 40th Street, the largest on the plot, include City Council member Christine Quinn and Donna Karan Home and its showroom.) During that year, the state will also condemn the buildings, allowing Empire State Development to assume ownership of the land.

Empire State Development spokesman Michael Marr told The Observer that “any attempt to expedite the [condemnation] process may actually end up lengthening [it],” by inviting lawsuits from property owners who might choose to argue that their sites are no longer condemnable, thanks to the area’s recent revitalization.

When condemnation and relocation is complete, optimistically by spring 2003, developer Forest City Ratner Companies-which will have a 99-year lease for the top half of the building, with The Times controlling and occupying the bottom half in a similar arrangement-can wait up to a year to start construction. But Ratner spokeswoman Michele de Milly said that, given the current environment, there were no plans to wait.

“We’re moving full-speed ahead,” she told The Observer , with plans to open the building in mid-2005.

– Karina Lahni

One Simple Rule:

Give Us Air and Water

For as long as many of them can remember, Chelsea residents have dreamed of a restored waterfront, of better views of their beloved Hudson, of relaxing on a grassy riverbank and, most of all, of more usable, airy public spaces.

If the money is still there, they may soon see it happen. The designers of the Hudson River Park are now working on Chelsea’s stretch of waterfront, and on Oct. 3 they showed up at Board 4 to query community members on what, exactly, they’d like their new park to be.

Designing the project are the architecture and restoration firm of Beyer, Blinder, Belle, renowned for its revivals of Grand Central Terminal and Ellis Island; landscape architects Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates; and public-garden designer Lynden Miller. They were selected by the Hudson River Park Trust this summer, beating out 19 other applicants to work on the park between Horatio Street in the West Village and 25th Street in Chelsea.

The designers were greeted at the board meeting with enthusiasm.

“There’s an enormous amount of excitement about this, no matter what,” Pam Frederick, who chairs the board’s waterfront committee, told The Observer . “While the first reaction is, ‘We can’t possibly worry about this now’ … everyone’s happy to have a positive distraction these days.”

There is, however, some concern about whether the cash-strapped city and state will divert funds away from projects like the Hudson River Park and toward reconstruction downtown. The total cost of the park is estimated at around $400 million, and the city and the state have each committed $100 million to the project, with the remaining $200 million still to be raised. Board members, however, are hoping the political forces will decide “don’t block this now; New York needs all the good things it can get,” Ms. Frederick told The Observer .

The planners have so far leafed through some 800 responses to a resident survey about the waterfront taken by Board 4 three years ago. What they’ve seen is “a cry from the community to have something green,” Christopher Stienon of Beyer, Blinder, Belle told The Observer .

Ms. Frederick, who compiled the survey results, said the priority request was “passive open space,” such as lawns. However, “active open space,” such as basketball courts, will also likely fit into the plans, she said.

The design team will meet at least four times with delegations from Board 4, which encompasses Chelsea, and Board 2, which covers the West Village, over the next couple of months before the next public meeting is called to get additional community feedback. They are scheduled to finish design by March of 2003, at which point construction is slated to begin.

“The park will evolve out of a collective set of aspirations,” and will represent a creative blend of “horticulture and urbanism,” Mr. Van Valkenburgh, the landscape architect, told Board 4.

Board members suggested that part of the restoration pay tribute to the area’s history as an industrial waterfront. The board also urged easy access to the waterfront for kayaking, boating and even just skipping stones.

“I grew up in the city, and the waterfront was always a dirty, smelly, you-don’t-go-there place,” board member Kevin Kossi told the design team, urging them to “make provisions for people to use the water.”

– K.L.

Rockefeller Has Plans

For Growth, Too

Expansion-weary Upper East Siders, who for months have battled against the proposed Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center laboratory tower at 430 East 67 Street, can add Rockefeller University to their list of institutional expansionists.

At the Oct. 4 meeting of Board 8, Rockefeller representatives unveiled plans for the construction of a new 14-story laboratory building on the university’s Upper East Side campus. The 230-foot building, which will house up to 25 new research laboratories, a 200-seat auditorium and an underground parking garage, is slated for the northwest corner of the campus at 68th Street and York Avenue, on the site of an existing parking lot.

But unlike the Sloan-Kettering plan, which exceeds the cancer center’s current zoning allotment and has required Memorial to lobby hard for a more flexible zoning designation as a “Large Scale Community Facility Development,” Rockefeller has had this coveted designation in its pocket since 1983. As such, their plan is considered as-of-right and requires little more than a rubber stamp from the City Planning Commission.

Still, Rockefeller, which sits adjacent to Memorial’s main campus between 66th and 69th streets, cannot have been blind to the massive community opposition mounted against their neighbor’s planned 440-foot tower. University representatives showed up at the Oct. 4 meeting with an environmental expert, transportation consultant and attorney in tow. No board vote was taken, nor was one necessary, but the outreach- cum -public-relations tack couldn’t hurt-particularly at a time when area residents tensely awaited the City Planning Commission’s public hearing on the Memorial plan, scheduled for the following week.

The Rockefeller officials were poised with assurances. Although a final design for the proposed building has yet to be determined, university representatives told the board they expect it will be in keeping with the university’s predominantly stone and masonry architecture. Additionally, they said, the new building will be set back 19 feet from the street, will retain the existing York Avenue tree line and will require no new curb cuts.

Yet there were the usual East Side concerns: “Have you considered building the lab closer to the East River side of the campus?” asked board member Teri Slater. Rockefeller representatives glanced at each other, then began their response.

With construction slated to begin in early 2002, Rockefeller University plans to submit its proposal to the City Planning Commission by the end of the month. The 313,260-square-foot complex-290,260 square feet for the proposed tower and an additional 17,000 square feet of adjacent underground space for loading facilities and vibration-sensitive laboratories-will accommodate 440 new employees, and may be ready for occupancy as early as the end of 2004.

Citing the new laboratory building as an opportunity for the university to provide temporary swing space to house existing labs in serious need of refurbishment, Rockefeller officials say the ultimate goal of creating up to 25 new labs for the campus is in keeping with the university’s desire to maintain a competitive research edge. Among other advances, the university has garnered recent media attention for its research in how birds learn to sing, work that has altered the way scientists think about the brain and has profound implications for treating degenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s disease in humans.

– Petra Bartosiewicz

Oct. 10: Board 6, New York University Medical Center, 550 First Avenue, between 32nd and 33rd streets, Alumni Hall, classroom A, 7 p.m., 319-3750.

Oct. 11: Board 5, Fashion Institute of Technology, 227 West 27th Street, between Seventh and Eighth avenues, Building A, eighth floor, 6 p.m., 465-0907.

Oct. 16: Board 11, Draper Hall, First Avenue and 99th Street, 6:30 p.m., 831-8929.

Oct 17: Board 8, New York Blood Center, 310 East 67th Street, between First and Second avenues, auditorium, 7 p.m., 758-4340.

Oct. 18: Board 9, Community Board Office, 565 West 125th Street, between Broadway and Old Broadway, 6:30 p.m., 864-6200; Board 2, St. Vincent’s Hospital, 170 West 12th Street, between Sixth and Seventh avenues, 10th floor, 7 p.m., 979-2272.