By Carter B. Horsley
The incredible surprise announcement late May
7, 2008 by the MTA that it has reached an impasse with Tishman
Speyer and that negotiations were ended for the deal to develop
its 26-acre rail yards west of Penn Station was historic and raises
many important questions.
MTA had selected Tishman Speyer over four other
bids only six weeks before and after an exhaustive public review
process in which every detail of all the proposals were meticulously
examined by the affected community boards, the city's architectural
and planning communities and the press. (See The
City Review article that provides detailed coverage of each proposal
and the history of the proposal.)
Jerry Speyer, the head of Tishman Speyer, which
owns the Chrysler Building and Rockefeller Center and Stuyvesant
Town among many other properties, flew to London to meet with
Mayor Bloomberg two days after the MTA announcement, but there
was no public indication that his company's plan has been resurrected.
Indeed, an article by Charles V. Bagli in The New York Times
May 8, 2008, reported that Tishman Speyer had "jettisoned its designs by the architect Helmut
The other ventures that had submitted bids
were Extell Development, Brookfield Properties, a venture of the
Durst Organization and Vornado Realty Trust, and the Related Companies.
All of the submitted bids called for the erection
of a platform to permit the continued use of the yards except
for the one submitted by Extell that called for a suspended level
over the yards.
In the first round of bids submitted in October,
the top bid of $1.049 billion was submitted by Related, followed
by $1.015 billion submitted by Durst/Vornado, $908 million submitted
by Brookfield, $819 million submitted by Tishman Speyer, and $598
million submitted by Extell.
A second round of bidding was requested in
February. Brookfield Properties did not submit a bid but indicated
it could be involved as a co-developer, and Related submitted
a bid only for the western half of the yards but not the eastern
Extell submitted the highest bid in the second
round: $1.15 billion. However, it did not agree to pay sales tax
and that refusal led to its elimination in the bidding process.
Related's second round bid was $943 million, Tishman Speyer's
was $897 million and Durst/Vornado's was $842 million.
The MTA then asked for more bids from the two
remaining ventures and Tishman Speyer offered $1.004 billion and
Durst/Vornado $892 million. Over the last few days, Durst/Vornado
upped its bid but it still fell short of Tishman Speyer's.
The Durst/Vornado plan included new headquarters
for Condé Nast Publications and a much higher number of
apartments than the Tishman Speyer plan, which attracted little
enthusiasm from architectural and community commentators.
The collapse of the Tishman Speyer deal is
the latest nail in the coffin of Mayor Bloomberg's ambitious plans
to rebuild Far West Midtown. It is hard to believe that none of
the projects will be realized but all the major proposals have
come across significant stumbling blocks in recent months.
The grandiose plan to relocated Madison Square
Garden to the west end of the Farley Post Office to facilitate
the creation of the long planned Moynihan Station and a major
upgrade to Pennsylvania Station apparently ended when the Garden
recently said it has decided not to relocate and to renovate its
circular arena. The Garden relocation would have opened up the
potential transfer of several million square feet of development
rights for Related Companies and Vornado Realty Trust in the vicinity.
The planned extension of the 7 line from Times
Square west on 42nd Street and down to near the Javits Convention
Center has financial problems that have eliminated to date the
creation of more than one station, dealing a serious blow to various
development proposals along West 42nd Street and down a new diagonal
boulevard planned from 42nd Street to 34th Streets between Tenth
and Eleventh Avenue that the city had very significantly upzoned
rather quietly during the Bloomberg Administration's attend to
build a football stadium on the MTA yards.
In May, 2008, Richard Rogers withdrew as architect
of a planned expansion of the Javits Convention Center, a plan
that was extremely modest in size but greatly out of context with
the existing design by I. M. Pei & Partners. Rogers's withdrawal
came shortly after the state indicated it had no money for a much
more important expansion and was now contemplating selling off
very important sites for any future expansion. The city's convention
center is not even among the top ten in size in the country.
All of these plans were bold attempts to transform
the relatively dreary, lackluster section of midtown west of the
very crowded Garment Center and around the traffic nightmares
of the bus terminal and the Lincoln Tunnel into a huge new center
with millions of square feet of first-class office space and thousands
of luxury apartments.
This "perfect storm" of collapsed
deals obviously reflect to a certain extent radically changed
economic conditions. The euphoric pipe-dreams are up in smoke,
back-room smoke largely, and the turn around in the climate is
so awesome that the silence is rather deafening especially since
so many companies and observers have been insisting that the city
is weathering the general economic malaise much better than elsewhere
in the country.
All of this dire talk, of course, might seem
like the end of the world, er, city, but one should not forget
how fantastic the building boom of the past few years has been
and how it has transformed significantly almost every neighborhood
in Manhattan and many in the outer boroughs.
So catching one's breath may not be bad, especially
since the new vacuum of super-project activity is an opportunity
to rethink some of them very seriously and more importantly rethink
the nature of their public review.
Each project, of course, has its adamant adherents
who proclaim theirs is the most important and no one has had an
adequate chance to consider priorities in the flood of proposals
that are very complex.
For many preservationists, justifiable still
outraged at the 1964 demolition of McKim, Mead & White's grand
Pennsylvania Station, nothing is more important than making the
miserable underground present train station more tolerable and
many of these activists have vivid dreams of the city regaining
a major and exciting portal. The plans to utilize the Farley Post
Office building one block to the west caught the imagination of
the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. That building does have
a nice colonnade on Eighth Avenue but is otherwise not a masterpiece
by any stretch of anyone's imagination and the plans were screwed
up sometime ago when Amtrak lost interest in it and it would now
mostly serve New Jersey transit.
Vornado Realty Trust was hoping to demolish
the Pennsyvlania Hotel on Seventh Avenue to build a new office
tower, one of several it wants to build in the area. The Landmarks
Preservation Commission finally decided not to hold a hearing
on whether to designate it a landmark, a highly questionable action
taken without any detailed public explanation. (See The
City Review article.)
Far more egregious, however, was the MTA's
selection of Tishman Speyer's proposal for its rail yards as the
architectural and urban plan was the worst by far of the five
submitted and clearly MTA's decision was basely solely on dollars,
which recalls the tremendous controversy over the redevelopment
of Columbus Circle where the decision was reversed at last because
it had been based solely on money. Public agencies have public
responsibilities and while fiscal responsibility is important
so is not doing any harm, which does not narrowly mean to focus
only on shadows and infrastructure but to see the larger picture,
the grand vision of the city and its destiny and the aesthetic
uplifting of the spirits of its citizens.
All too often in recent years important decisions
have been made that fly in the face of reason and all testimony
and stink of back-room dealing. One cannot at the very last minute
substitute a grossly inferior plan without public discussion for
one that has painstakingly and agonizingly debated and voted upon
in good faith.
It's time for the city and various pubic agencies
to clean up its act, and also to get autonomy from the state.
One suspects we haven't heard the last of these
What is needed here is strong political leadership
to sort out the mess and set priorities. The city will survive
no matter what, but it should not only survive but constantly
The financial crisis is a good excuse to stop
the music and rearrange the chairs.