What ESB/Vornado and 'Ground Zero Mosque' Fights Have in Common

tall 0 What ESB/Vornado and 'Ground Zero Mosque' Fights Have in CommonThe owners of the Empire State Building today released a poll that queried people around the country about the place of the skyscraper in New York City’s skyline.

The point of the poll was to show that indeed this building has an iconic place in Americans’ vision of New York, and that changing the skyline would be bad for the city. Sixty-six percent of New York City visitors, according to the poll’s sponsors, feel the tower “would degrade the character of the New York City skyline.”

Of course, this was just the latest round in the ongoing—and rapidly culminating—spat between Empire State Building owners Tony and Peter Malkin and Vornado Realty Trust, the developers planning a 1,200-foot tower two blocks away.

The poll—and the Malkins’ rhetoric in the fight—taps into a larger question on land-use policy, one that can also be seen to a certain extent three miles south, in the hysterical fight (if people yelling about an as-of-right building can really be termed a fight) over the mosque planned two blocks from ground zero: What role should those outside New York play in development decisions?

Tony Malkin, who is leading the charge against the Vornado tower, is scrambling to protect the postcard vision of New York City’s skyline, where the Empire State Building sits front and center. And while he is appealing to New Yorkers to rally behind him, it is the international view of the New York skyline that he is trying to protect.

Here’s a sampling of his rhetoric from a fact sheet he sent out earlier this week:

“The Empire State Building is the internationally recognized icon on the skyline of New York City.  We are its custodians, and must protect its place.  Would a tower be allowed next to The Eiffel Tower or Big Ben’s clock tower?”

Translation: If the rest of the world had a vote, it would probably vote against this tower.

This is a rare appeal in the world of New York land use, where approvals are structured around a system of very local politics: what does the immediate community and the local Council member think about a project? And on this level, other considerations matter, such as the economic effects on the city (it’s a big investment); what a new tower might do to the neighborhood (make it less gritty, presumably); and what it might do to employment (people have to build the Vornado tower, after all).

In the end, things seem to be swinging toward approval. Council Speaker Christine Quinn and other members of the Council have voiced few concerns about the height, and at a hearing yesterday, many of the questions from key Council members—Leroy Comrie, for one—suggested they were not yet swayed by Mr. Malkin.

Still, Mr. Malkin was nothing if not tenacious, and yesterday at the City Council, he did not hold back any contempt about the tower’s design.

Sitting in a cramped committee room at 250 Broadway, he looked up at the Council members on the zoning subcommittee and gave testimony and answered follow-up questions with a long list of complaints about the tower.

David Greenbaum, the wiry president of Vornado’s New York office division, who is leading the charge for the tower, was sitting just 10 feet away listening to every criticism.

Within a stream of other vituperation, Mr. Malkin called the tower a “1,200-foot high, brand-new monstrosity.”

At that point, Mr. Greenbaum turned to his left where his architect, Rafael Pelli, was sitting. He smiled, and let out a little laugh, and went back to listening. 

ebrown@observer.com