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Trump's 'as-of-right' tower

Slights the United Nations

Trump's new tower and Chrysler Buidling

Trump's new Tower, shown at the right, was topped out during the summer of 2000

By Carter B. Horsley

Donald Trump has become the most flamboyant and famous real estate developer in the city’s history, one who has rarely shied away from controversy, or a building opportunity.

View from the northeast

View from the northeast

Indeed, he is a classic New York builder: someone who builds to the limits of the law and its loopholes. Such strategies, of course, are quite honorable even if the resulting projects are not necessarily masterpieces, or good.

Rendering of Trump World towerAs long as the city insists on strictly regulating what can be built, at least in terms of massing, and it has since it enacted the nation’s first Zoning Resolution in 1916, the fault for egregious projects, at least in terms of form and size, rests with the city and the public.

Mr. Trump has built one masterpiece, Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue and 56th street, designed by Der Scutt and Swanke Hayden Connell, and one very good building, Trump Palace at 200 East 69th Street, designed by Frank Williams. He also has acquired some excellent skyscrapers such as the former Barbizon Hotel on Central Park South and the Avenue of the Americas, which is now known as Trump Parc, and 40 Wall Street, both of which significantly enrich aesthetically his ever-growing portfolio.

The latest Trump brouhaha involves his 861-foot-tall Trump World Plaza now under construction between 47th and 48th Streets across First Avenue from the north end of the United Nations complex.

Billed as the world’s tallest residential tower, the building will have 72 floors, many of which are quite high by conventional standards. (Mr. Trump describes the building as 90 stories. Most post-war apartment buildings have stories that are each about 10 feet tall, so Mr. Trump's tower is the equivalent of about an 86-story, "conventional" apartment building. Several of his floors will have ceilings substantially more than 10 feet tall and most apartment buildings have much lower ceilings.) The sleek tower has been designed by Costas Kondylis with bronze-colored glass facades without setbacks.

This is simply an elongated, reflective monument of the "2001: A Space Odyssey" sort. As such, it has proved to be an equally compelling lightning rod and has aroused considerable local opposition from individuals, some of whom may lose some of the vistas from their own nearby apartments, and some community groups such as the Municipal Arts Society.

View of entrance on First Avenue

View of entrance on First Avenue

From its renderings, it would appear to be a very handsome building, rather similar to Millennium Hotel across the World Trade Center that was built by Peter Kalikow and is now operated by the Marriott hotel chain. It is, of course, much bigger than that hotel. Trump’s new building ideally should be erected in the middle of the huge plaza at the World Trade Center, across from the Millennium Hotel as it would act as an excellent foil for that center’s famous twin towers whose spatial resonances have never quite jelled and could use some contrapuntal competition.

Completed building

Trump World completed on the right

Clearly, Mr. Trump is just aching for some contrapuntal competition as his new tower promises to clearly knock the socks and caps off everything in the vicinity and become the biggest eye-catcher in the city since the World Trade Center and, before that, the former PanAm (now the MetLife) Building straddling Park Avenue.

What was once a slaughterhouse, industrial and low-income residential district has evolved over the decades with the help of the super deluxe River House apartment building at 435 East 52nd Street, the spectacular United Nations complex, and some later odd-shaped towers such as the United Nations Plaza Hotel on First Avenue and 44th Street and 100 United Nations Plaza close by Trump’s new project, into one of the city’s more curious mixed-used enclaves.

entrance steps View to the south

Entrance steps, left, and view to the south, right

Not far from Grand Central Terminal, the Chrysler Building and the midtown office district and the residential neighborhood of Turtle Bay to the west and Beekman Place and Sutton Place to the east, and Tudor City to the south, this area abounds in diplomatic facilities, restaurants and some impressive institutional properties such as The Japan Society on West 46th Street and the Ford Foundation Building on West 42nd Street.

It is an area that well represents the chaotic jumble of Manhattan. There is neither architectural cohesion or context. It abounds in contrasts just as it did when the "Dead-End" kids of the movies epitomized the propinquity of the rich and the poor in the Depression.

For some older New Yorkers, the area has always been a bit outré or removed despite the supreme elegance of River House and some Sutton Place residences. The United Nations complex, perhaps New York City’s most underrated architectural landmark, however, did much to change that perception and the twin towers at 860 and 870 United Nations Plaza on 49th Street at the north end of the park at the United Nations paid homage to it by utilizing glass facades, albeit not green, and not rising above the great Secretariat Building, New York’s most splendid slab skyscraper. In the late 1970’s, the angled forms of the first of the two green-glass towers at the United Nations Plaza hotel and office complex across First Avenue from the U. N. also were intentionally kept lower than the Secretariat Building and there was a widespread understanding that buildings around the U.N. complex would defer to the prominence of the Secretariat Building, an understanding both reasonable, right and gracious, especially since the city has not ever been able to assemble a grand approach to the international complex.

Such conjuring, of course, may make some sense while projects are still in their planning stages, but not after they have passed their zoning and building regulatory processes and are in construction. Community groups, of course, have not been deterred by the force of logic, or regulation, and many remember with great pride the case about a decade ago of the "too-tall" tower at 108 East 96th Street that was forced to demolish its top 12 floors because of an error by the city’s Department of Buildings.

View looking down First Avenue

View looking down First Avenue

Many of these civic activists are hoping that Mr. Trump can still be stopped short of topping off his new apartment tower that will be about 300 feet or so taller than the 39-story Secretariat Building. Some of them sought unsuccessfully to have the Federal Aviation Authority find that the building interfered with flight traffic and they have waged a campaign, led in part by Walter Cronkite, the former television anchor man on CBS News, to appeal the city’s approvals of the project before the Board of Standards & Appeals in late September, 1999. The board, however, upheld Mr. Trump's approvals. (9/28/99)

A long article September 8, 1999 in The New York Times by Blaine Harden quoted Mr. Cronkite as saying that "Most of us recognize that in the vibrant, constantly changing metropolis that is New York, only those fortunate and wealthy enough to live on Fifth Avenue and Central Park West or facing one of the rivers have any sort of guarantee of a perpetual view," adding that "Most importantly, this protest is supported by a whole lot more less-than-wealthy folks who are sharply offended by the unnecessary grossness of this project."

Mr. Cronkite lives in an apartment on the 25th floor of 870 United Nations Plaza and will have his view of the Chrysler Building blocked by Mr. Trump’s new tower, the article stated. Other residents in his building complex who are opposed to Mr. Trump’s tower include Walter Wriston, former chairman of Citibank, and William H. Donaldson, a founder of Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette, the article noted.

Mr. Cronkite even wrote a letter to President Kim Dae Jung of South Korea imploring him to prevail upon the Daewoo Corporation, the principal lender for the Trump project, to use its influence and alter the plan for the tower.

Much of The Times article was devoted to the objections of Alberto W. Vilar, a resident in the area whose views from his 30-room, quadriplex apartment of the Empire State Building will be obstructed by Mr. Trump’s new tower. Mr. Vilar, the manager of a high-tech fund and a philanthropist, has contributed heavily to the project’s opposition.

Mr. Trump relishes such fights, of course, and his projects have been remarkably successful, not because of their architecture, but their marketing. Of late, he has been acting rather oddly, permitting Avon to have a bigger sign on the front of Trump Tower than his, and brazenly putting his name all over the Fifth Avenue base of the white marble tower at 767 Fifth Avenue across from the Plaza Hotel. (See The City Review articles on the Trump Tower and the General Motors Building.)

In April, 1999, the city announced that it would study new regulations for skyscrapers, but those, if adopted, would not affect this project because of the nature of "grandfathered" projects. It is unlikely that Mr. Trump will voluntarily alter his project especially since he has already marketed it as the world’s tallest residential building. He does, however, plan to have another palatial apartment for himself in the tower, according to The Times, and perhaps he could be convinced to make a spectacular gesture towards the United Nations, perhaps an abstract UN logo sculpture at the top, or a huge stainless steel abstract dove flying downwards in the direction of the United Nations, even it meant sacrificing a few stories.

The tower is so big that merely lopping off 25 floors or so is not enough to bring it down to the Secretariat’s height. How did Mr. Trump acquire so much zoning rights here and from whom and why were they so quiet during the acquisition process? Surely, the sellers of the zoning rights, or "air rights," as they are known, are sophisticated, by definition, and knew that something very big was going to follow. Are they blameless?

The biggest question, of course, is who was asleep at the switch at the Buildings Department, which had to issue permits. Had they never heard of the United Nations? Had they any notion of the tradition of not rising above the Secretariat in the immediate perimeter of the United Nations complex and was that not in fact written into some part of the city’s zoning at one point?

The Times noted that Mayor Guiliani has been silent on the controversy. Perhaps he might suggest that Mr. Trump erect a skyscraper in City Hall Park blocking his views, or around the Statue of Liberty, or just to the north of the Washington Arch at the base of Fifth Avenue. The mayors of the city have not been notable for their architectural prowess or leadership, but they should be. If they don’t care, why should anyone? They should.

A possible solution would be for the city to convince Mr. Trump to redesign his building to be one foot shorter than the Secretariat Building. Such a plan would require a major redesign and perhaps the city might have to waive some regulations and do a lot of expediting as well as a great deal of tax abatement/incentives to compensate Mr. Trump for the very substantial costs involved. Clearly, the lost higher floors are the most expensive and the smaller floors of a tower are more desirable than the larger floors of a much squatter building. We are talking millions of dollars of new design costs, substantial construction and mortgage repayment delays, to say nothing of possible problems with delivering apartments that might be under contract in a timely fashion. Mr. Trump could also argue, with reason, that a substantially lower building on the site would have substantially fewer units with impressive views. Where else could the city permit Mr. Trump to transfer air rights from this site to help compensate such a radical solution, and be able to guarantee that he will be able to build them "as-of-right" without the threat of more community opposition at another location?

These are difficult problems even if the project were only in the planning stages, let only construction.

There is nothing inherently wrong with tall buildings, especially in Manhattan. Mr. Cronkite is right that views are not perpetual property rights especially in New York. He is wrong in describing Mr. Trump’s tower as "unnecessary grossness," though the concept of "necessary beauty" is intriguing. Mr. Trump needs to be challenged by the "necessary beauty" of great, exciting architecture, an art form perhaps at its historical high though rarely apparent in New York. As the world’s greatest city, New York should not be the backwater of great design, a dumping ground for banal gloss, but the seat of innovation, the imaginative and contagiously creative center of the world from which even Mr. Trump is not immune.

Mr. Trump has pulled a fast one and for that he deserves congratulations, but not necessarily applause. Building is not easy in New York, in large part because the city has so many regulations. If the city had created a special zoning district for the United Nations neighborhood perhaps this controversy would not have occurred. It is not the end of the world if Mr.Trump's tower is not altered, but this case emphasizes, once again, how important it is for the city's leaders to be sensitive and very alert to the city's physical environment and architecture.

Trump dwarfs Secretariat

The green slab skyscaper at the right is the United Nations Secretariat Building, which is clearly dwarfed by Trump's new tower shown still under construction but topped out in September, 2000

"As-of-right" means that a builder can proceed without lengthy delays when his project complies with all existing regulations. It is a good idea. Justice delayed is usually justice denied. Should the city require that all major projects over a certain size pass through some sort of expedited review even if they conform to existing regulations? Yes, provided that such reviews are in fact quickly conducted with community and professional members of the review panel.

View from Second Avenue

View from Second Avenue

The tallest residential tower in the city when it was built, this 861-foot-high, 72-story building created a major controversy in 1999 that led in large part to the city's decision to revise its Zoning resolution, a notoriety it shares with 120 Broadway, the 42-story office building in Lower Manhattan whose huge bulk led to city to create its first Zoning Resolution in 1916.

Developed by Donald Trump, the city's most flamboyant builder, the bronze-glass tower rises without setbacks and was erected "as-of-right," that is, within the existing zoning and building regulations and therefore did not require approval by various city agencies.

The project flabbergasted and outraged many of its neighbors who fought unsuccessfully to block it. Mr. Trump had assembled several contiguous lots and transferred their development rights to the avenue to significantly increase the size of his sheer tower.

Mr. Trump has rarely shied away from controversy, or a building opportunity. Indeed, he is a classic New York builder: someone who builds to the limits of the law and its loopholes.

Part of the controversy came from those who felt that this project demonstrated that the city's zoning was flawed. Also at issue was the fact that this tower broke with the tradition in the area that no building fronting on the grounds of the United Nations on the other side of First Avenue should be taller than its famous Secretariat Building.

While some area residents thought this was part of existing zoning, it apparently was not although it had been a rule that had been followed by such major projects as the nearby 860 United Nations Plaza, a twin-towered mixed-use complex on the north side of the UN's property, and the United Nations Plaza office and hotel complex, designed by Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo & Associates, across from it on First Avenue at 44th Street.

In their fine book, "New York 2000, Architecture and Urbanism Between The Bicentennial and the Millenium," (The Monacelli Press, 2006), Robert A. M. Stern, David Fishman and Jacob Tilove noted the Mr. Trump "after interviewing Kohn Pedersen Fox, John Portman, Frank Gehry and Robert A. M. Stern, Trump selected as his architect Costas Kondylis, who had recently collaborated with Philip Johnson on the reworking of the Gulf & Western Building into the Trump International Hotel and Tower." The authors quoted Karrie Jacobs to the effect that "while other developers clad residential towers in masonry, striving for the dignity of a classic prewar building, Trump is building New York's first Modernist-revival apartment tower. It pays homage to Mies and Modernism in a kitschy way that readers of Wallpaper magazine will appreciate. Kondylis takes the language of the Seagram Building - all that glass, all those straight lines, the stern, sober mien - and exaggerates it."

The authors also wrote that "In one of his most discussed articles, the mercurial Herbert Muschamp [then the architecture critic of The New York Times] enthusiastically greeted the building by favorably comparing it to Trump's Riverside South development on the West Side" and described it as "undeniably the most primal building New York has seen in quite a while." "Ignoring the improbable structural shifts at the tower's midpoint and the unrhythmic (and strictly functional) arrangement of the window bays," the authors continued, "Muschamp confined his pleasure to a 'visual appeal [that] derives, first of all, from the contrast between its amplitude of scale and its simplicity of shape.' Muschamp amazingly contrasted it with the Empire State Building...where he found 'an unbalanced ratio of width to depth. Depending on your perspective, the tower shifts from sliveresque to monolithic....After all the frou-frou launched into the skyline for the past generation - the fussy attempts at three-dimensional collage; the ersatz Art Deco confections weighed down by stepped silhouettes and ornate crowns - it is pleasing to see a flat roof raised to the top of the skyline by four flush glass walls.'"

In 2001, Tenants moved into this sheer tower that is only slightly shorter than Citicorp Center on Lexington Avenue and about the same height, though much more slender, than 30 Rockefeller Center and the MetLife (former PanAm) Building stradding Park Avenue.

While its clean lines follow in the modern traditions of the United Nations complex, its bronze color sets it apart from the blue-green tone of the Secretariat Building and the United Nations Plaza complex to the south, but it will be of the same palette as the triangular-topped 100 United Nations apartment tower nearby on 48th Street, which it dwarfs.

Aesthetically, the glass facade design makes more sense in this context than the Post-Modern masonry designs of several other contemporary luxury apartment towers and the tower's proportions are elegant when not considered in this context. Indeed, Mr. Trump has fared well with bronze-glass towers at Trump Tower, designed by Der Scutt, on Fifth Avenue between 56th and 57th Streets and Trump International Plaza and Hotel, designed by Philip Johnson, at 1 Central Park West at Columbus Center, a recladding of the former black-and-white Gulf & Western Building, and his Trump Plaza apartment tower designed by Philip Birnbaum on Third Avenue between 61st and 62nd Streets.

(Trump is not wedded to the bronze-glass motif as evidenced by the very attractive Trump Palace apartment tower designed by Frank Williams on Third Avenue at 68th Street and his redevelopment of the Barbizon Plaza Hotel on Central Park South into the Trump Parc apartment building, and his acquisition of the skyscraper at 40 Wall Street.)

Because it fronts on the park on the northern part of the United Nations, Trump World Tower building has protected views of the East River and the United Nations to the east. Its upper apartments have sensational views and Mr. Trump provides his luxury apartment buildings with sufficient glitz and amenities to attract residents from around the world.

This neck-cranner would obviously be quite at home in Houston, but probably not in Dallas where tastes run a bit wilder. It would even not be too bad at Mr. Trump's Riverside South project, which he scaled back and radically redesigned to meet community opposition and which will now have rather uniform, quasi-post-modern buildings, albeit quite tall, but no central landmark of great stature.

Originally, Mr. Trump hoped to build the world's tallest building at Riverside South, and perhaps he considered this a consolation prize.

The city's rezoning could not effect the project because it had been initiated before the new regulations were enacted and were therefore "grandfathered" and unaffected.

The building has a doorman, a concierge, a health club, and a garage, but no balconies.

It replaced the Engineering Societies Building that had been designed in 1961 by Shreve, Lamb & Harmon.

There is considerable traffic on First Avenue and the building is quite far away from subways. There are cross-town buses on 42nd, 49th and 50th Streets. There are numerous restaurants and neighborhood stores further north on First Avenue and on Second Avenue.

After-construction pictures of tower and its entrance on First Avenue

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