The Empire Strikes Back

15Penn_dusk

“Each evening the skyscrapers of New York assume the anthropomorphic shapes of Millet’s Angeluses… motionless…and ready to perform the sexual act and to devour one another…” – Salvador Dali New York Salutes Me!

New York has maintained its architectural dominance in the United States due to its artistic spirit and its ability to constantly reinvent itself. For over a hundred years, architects have designed buildings that mocked gravity and pushed the structural limitations of building construction. It may come to great surprise then, the recent media attention centered on the Empire State Building and its future neighbor, 15 Penn Plaza, or the “Vornado Tower.”  The supporters of the Empire State Building recently lost a campaign to stop the Vornado Tower from reaching zoning approval. Proponents of the Empire State Building assert that the scale and bulky profile of the Vornado Tower would dwarf the Empire State Building, diminishing its iconic status within the city’s skyline. The Empire State Building’s campaign went so far as to actually propose a 17 block exclusion zone that would prohibit the construction of large buildings that might obstruct views to and from the Empire State Building. The Manhattan Community Board voted overwhelmingly against the construction of the Vornado Tower, encouraged by outraged New Yorkers. Why did the movement to deny approval for the Vornado Tower fail (voted down 47-1 by City Council last week)? We will attempt to analyze this question from an economic standpoint and an architectural one.

Economic

Air Rights – New York City real estate remains the most valuable in the country for one major reason; the amount of possible buildable area is gridlocked by water and defined by a strict grid layout. This defining characteristic limits sprawl, ensuring a strong city center, but confines the growth of the city in a horizontal plane. To compensate, air rights, the ability to build vertically, becomes a major factor for city developers. Every building lot has a maximum defined height as mandated by the New York City Zoning Resolution (New York City enacted the first zoning policy in 1916 as a result of New Yorkers speaking out against the loss of sunlight and questionable air quality). But owners are able to increase the maximum height by either providing public amenities or by buying air rights. In a similar fashion, it is not uncommon for a tall building with a wealthy tenant base to purchase air rights to maintain their scenic views. So how could the Empire State Building make a claim to vertical real estate they do not own, let alone 17 city blocks they proposed in their exclusionary zone?

Economic Revitalization – With unemployment still hovering at 9.5%, the highest since the early 1920s, the construction of the Vornado Tower could act as the catalyst to move New York City out of its recessionary lows and into a new era of prosperity. The supporters of the Vornado Tower claim it will add new jobs, both during the construction of the estimated three billion dollar tower, and far after its completion. Proponents often highlight the revitalization of the surrounding Midtown area, coupled with 100 million dollar transit related improvements promised by the tower’s developer, to benefit all New Yorkers.

Architectural

The Empire State Building (1931) stands at 1,454 feet tall (including its metal lighting rod) and claimed the title of “the tallest free standing structure in the world” for 36 years. It houses more than 1,000 businesses and even boasts its own zip code. The building became a cultural icon in the 1933 movie King Kong when the oversized ape ascended the Empire State Building to flee his captors, only to fall to his death shortly after. The Empire State Building remains the tallest building in New York City, and will yield only to the new World Trade Center (estimated completion 2013). With its Art Deco design illuminating the city skyline, the Empire State Building remains undoubtedly one of the most recognizable buildings in the world.

If the Empire State building has such a strong identity, how could another building possibly diminish it so quickly? The answer is simple, size and proximity. The Vornado Tower is designed to be just 34 feet shorter than the Empire State Building and will be located approximately two avenues West and one block South of New York’s historic landmark. Challengers of the Vornado Tower direct much of their criticism towards the design of the tower, ruthlessly condemning its clunky glass and steel façade. But in reality this is all just a pretense. With the schematics of the Vornado Tower still in their infancy, it is quite common for a building of this significance to be redesigned multiple times, even by multiple architects, before a final consensus is reached (consider the evolution of the new World Trade Center).

The tragedy of the whole debate lies in a disturbing new perception of New York City, a city that has always thrived off its eclecticism. New York City, as described by world-renowned architect Rem Koolhaas in Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan, “is a field where all histories, doctrines, ideologies, once carefully separated by space and time, appear simultaneously.” How could the Manhattan Community Board, with the responsibility of acting as an advisory role in land and zoning matters, unanimously vote to initially deny the zoning of the Vornado Tower? Although the City Council overturned the Community Board’s recommendation, what does it say about a city that only showcases its history but refuses to progress?

Terrorist attacks, natural disasters, and financial meltdowns have all been shown to temporarily dampen the spirit of New York City, a place so special that some call it the “Center of the Universe.” But take away its creative capacity and replace it with a regressive mindset, and you will have destroyed its very life force.

New York City just had a near death experience.

Article Info
Posted by: Ben Coss
Thinking About: Architecture / Building / Culture
Location: New York City
Website: http://www.bencoss.com
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