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MoMA Monster Refuses to Shrink: NY City Council Committee Hearing

At the hearing, left to right: Architect Jean Nouvel, David Penick of Hines, MoMA’s Glenn Lowry, project attorney Michael Sillerman

I’m going to leave the story of the Barnes’ design plans to the Philadelphia Inquirer‘s Inga Saffron for now. (Her expanded report is here.)

That’s because I’ve got to bring you the news from the hearing I attended today on the MoMA/Hines tower. As your may remember, Jean Nouvel‘s skyscraper had grown, in stages, to 1,250 feet (the height of the Empire State Building, without its antenna). The City Planning Commission cried out, “Too tall!” and lopped off 200 feet.

But look out, earthlings…

…it’s BA-A-A-A-CK!

MoMA’s four heavy hitters (architect Jean Nouvel, Museum of Modern Art director Glenn Lowry, and the project’s lawyer and its developer) were at City Hall today, trying to revive their 85-story giant. This would require convincing the NY City Council to overturn the City Planning Commission’s mandate.

At today’s hearing held by the Zoning and Franchises Subcommittee of the Council’s Land Use Committee, David Penick, managing partner for developer Hines on this project, argued that the undertaking might not be financially viable at the reduced height, which would also undermine its “architectural integrity.”

Near the beginning of his testimony, Penick said that the shrinkage would force the tower to lose its 150 luxury condominiums, which were planned for the top floors. Later, he said it would keep the condos but lose the 120 hotel units. The Council’s Land Use Committee chair, Melinda Katz caught that self-contradiction, whereupon Penick stated that the hotel units would probably be eliminated, not the potentially more lucrative condos.

During a break in the action, I caught up with Penick and Nouvel outside the meeting room. Penick told me that lopping off 200 feet of height (a loss of 100,000 square feet from the building’s proposed 658,000 square feet) would mean a loss of 16 of the planned 85 stories. He conceded that the project, even if it got government approval, would not start any time soon; it would await improved economic conditions.

Nouvel told me he was uncertain whether he would continue with the project if the tower was shortened to 1,050 feet (which would make it the height of another skyline icon, the Chrysler Building). At the hearing, Nouvel unveiled “a new proposal for the top,” including reflective “fins” that would be be seen from certain vantage points around the tower, but not others. “There would be strong differences of experiences of the top as you moved around the building….It is a very elegant building.”

In addition to affecting the architecture, a smaller project would mean less of a windfall for the nonprofits (St. Thomas Church, the University Club, the American Folk Art Museum) that have agreed to sell air rights for the project, because less space would be needed. MoMA may also sell air rights for the project, which it had previously acquired from the University Club.

No vote was taken by the subcommittee today. Whatever happens, MoMA already has in hand the $125 million that Hines paid for the land adjacent to the museum—the site of the proposed tower. The new building would include on its lower floors space for MoMA’s next expansion. Considering what’s happened to the real estate market since that land sale, it now looks like a great financial deal for MoMA, not so great for the developer.

In his testimony, Lowry explained his previously unsupported claim that the new expansion would not cause a significant attendance jump (which would further rile the neighbors): He argued there was a limited audience for modern art and that he believed MoMA, at about 2.5 million annual visitors, is now “very close to the maximum size of our audience.”

Councilman Daniel Garodnick, whose constituents include neighborhood opponents to the project, declared that proponents’ claims that the tower would have minimal impact on the surrounding area were “hard to follow and hard to swallow.”

I’ll have more on this project in subsequent posts. But for now, here’s Garodnick peering out from behind the MoMA Monster Model:


And here’s a closer look at the model. The tall transparent piece in the center, representing the tower, is removable. That may be a practical accommodation to future modification:


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