Defending the Empire: The Campaign Against the Empire State Building's Giant Neighbor to the West

CAMPAIGNS AGAINST MAJOR towers are ingrained in the history of New York, of course, but rarely are they led—or even participated in—by major landlords. Typically, it is the local residents who put landlords on the defensive, often using many of the same tactics as Mr. Malkin (appealing to civic groups; faulting the environmental review; making renderings to illustrate a proposed building’s effects). But unlike the typical Upper West Side renter concerned about a new condo tower across the street, he has a bit more of a platform on which to stand.

Further, Mr. Malkin’s argument is not without precedent, at least if one is to look at the model set by the Bloomberg administration last year, when the City Planning Commission chopped 200 feet off the height of the 1,250-foot-tall, Jean Nouvel-designed tower next to MoMA. The reasoning, from the Planning Commission, was that the design for the tower’s top was not shown to merit “being in the zone of the Empire State Building’s iconic spire.”

“It’s hard to understand how City Planning could say that 15 Penn Plaza would have no impact on the Empire State Building when they already lowered a proposed 53rd Street building for that very reason,” said Peg Breen, president of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, who added that her group does not oppose development on the Hotel Pennsylvania. “We would urge the Council to look at the discretionary waivers and bonuses this proposal has received.”

The local community board has been critical of the Vornado plan, and opposed it on a number of grounds. And the powerful hotel workers’ union has been concerned with the plans for the tower, given that it would involve shuttering the giant Hotel Pennsylvania.

Of course, this is all coming quite late in the process, so much so that it’s hard to see how it would have much of an effect, especially when the tower has received support from some civic groups and the borough president. The clock is ticking, with the City Council vote scheduled for next week, and strong opposition mo
vements take time, particularly when heated opposition did not form sooner in the process.

And Mr. Malkin’s earlier tiff with Ms. Quinn, the Council speaker, over Mother Teresa’s birthday can’t help, as the tower sits in her district.

That said, the proposed tower may, in the end, simply prove to be theoretical. Vornado is by no means ready to demolish the Hotel Pennsylvania, a property that, despite its less-than-rave reviews, was minting cash for the company when room rates were high in 2007 and 2008.

Further, Vornado has said it is only moving ahead with the rezoning now to have the option for building the tower at some later date, if and when it finds an anchor tenant. The firm declined to comment on Mr. Malkin’s criticism.

ebrown@observer.com