By Carter B. Horsley
Donald Trump has become the most flamboyant
and famous real estate developer in the citys history, one
who 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. Such strategies,
of course, are quite honorable even if the resulting projects
are not necessarily masterpieces, or good.
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
nations 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
Billed as the worlds 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.
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. Trumps 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 centers famous twin towers whose
spatial resonances have never quite jelled and could use some
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 Trumps new project, into one of the citys
more curious mixed-used enclaves.
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 Citys 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 Yorks most splendid
slab skyscraper. In the late 1970s, 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 citys Department
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 citys 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. Trumps new tower, the article
stated. Other residents in his building complex who are opposed
to Mr. Trumps 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. Trumps new tower.
Mr. Vilar, the manager of a high-tech fund and a philanthropist,
has contributed heavily to the projects 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
worlds 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 Secretariats
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 citys 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 dont
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. Trumps 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 worlds 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.
"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.
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"
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
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.