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MoMA-Monster Smackdown: Tilting at Skyscrapers at the City Planning Hearing UPDATED


I got to the hearing room early on July 22 for the 10 a.m. meeting of the City Planning Commission, claiming a ringside seat for the slugfest between high-powered proponents of the MoMA/Hines project and the neighborhood NIMBYs. As it happened, the MoMA Monster’s turn for discussion came up dead last, at 12:15 p.m.

Almost three hours after that, when I finally fled the scene, the battle was still raging over Jean Nouvel‘s mixed-use tower which, at 1,250 feet, would equal the height (without the antenna) of New York’s tallest skyscraper, the Empire State Building. The 82 stories of 53 W. 53rd St. would include three floors (one double-height) for the next planned Museum of Modern Art expansion, as well as a 13-story hotel and 65 floors of apartments.

Wait a minute! Did I say 82 stories (up from the original 75 stories)? The information packet, handed to me by a lawyer for the project and dated July 22 (the date of the hearing), did put the number of stories at 82 (as did the speakers at the hearing).

But the printed agenda for the hearing says something else: It twice describes the project as an 85-STORY mixed-use building. The irrepressible MoMA Monster seems to be mimicking Jack’s beanstalk—very thin, always growing.

Back in January 2008, Architectural Record described the project as “expected to rise nearly as high as the 1,047-foot-tall Chrysler Building.” Now, who knows? Sky’s the limit.

I’m still awaiting clarification about the current correct figures for the number of stories and the building’s total height (if that’s changed). When I know, you’ll know. [UPDATE below.]

To boost the size of the project, Hines not only has agreements to purchase air rights from St. Thomas Church (down the block) and the University Club (down the block and across the street). Less well known, because this transfer doesn’t require approval from the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission and/or City Planning Commission, are negotiations to purchase air rights from the American Folk Art Museum, adjoining to the Nouvel tower. Its executive director, Maria Ann Conelli, spoke in favor of the project, late into the hearing.

Critics spared no rhetoric in denouncing Nouvel’s glass tower, particularly its enormous height relative to its small midblock site. Some speakers sounded serious and rational; others, slightly unhinged:

—This is the kind of thing that a zoning board was created to prevent.

—Outrageously tall for a midblock location….It is a glass spike driven into the heart of New York City.

—It’s just an oversized phallus [and MoMA’s the fig leaf?].

—A possible “target for terrorism,” it would “endanger the entire community and would endanger MoMA.”

—A monster skyscraper that would dwarf all the existing buildings.

—54th Street would be relegated to a back-door, service-alley position to MoMA.

Long-time State Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, whose district encompasses MoMA, raised a series of serious objections—about affronts to zoning principles and good city planning; the effect of shadows; the misuse of air rights; traffic and pedestrian impact.

He ended thus:

It’s an abuse of the community and our laws.

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer feels otherwise (and describes the project as 85 stories high).

For comic relief, my favorite NIMBY speaker was the woman who deplored “the possibility of more rodents, roaches and mosquitos.” Please call the exterminator!

Before the free-for-all began, the chief proponents, including French architect Jean Nouvel, who flew in for the occasion, had the floor—all too briefly, from their perspective. COMING NEXT WEEK, you’ll have my irreverent photo essay from ringside at 22 Reade.

UPDATE: This just in from Patrick Sullivan, an associate in the law firm representing the MoMA/Hines project:

To clarify, the height of the new [MoMA/Hines] building at its very
top is 1,250 feet. There will be 85 total stories, but only 82
occupiable stories.  The top three stories contain mechanical elements.

As a comparison, the top floor of the Empire State Building (102nd
floor) is 1,250 feet in height, but the top of its spire is 1,454

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