The Hotel Pennsylvania

Where are the Preservationists?

Old rendering with Pennsylvania Station on left and Hotel Pennsylvania on right

Old rendering looking north on Seventh Avenue with original Pennsylvania Station on left and Hotel Pennsylvania on the right

By Carter B. Horsley

The architect of the original Pennsylvania Station between Seventh and Eighth Avenues and 31st and 33rd Streets was McKim, Mead & White.

The architect of the Hotel Pennsylvania across Seventh Avenue from the entrance to the original Pennsylvania Station was McKim, Mead & White.

The demolition of the original Pennsylvania Station was one of the greatest losses the city has suffered, a loss not justified by the very bland and unattractive office building and underground transportation complex and the new, circular Madison Square Garden arena that replaced it.

Early photograph of the hotel

Early photograph of the hotel that was at one time called the world's largest

There are plans now afoot to demolish the Hotel Pennsylvania and the less than brilliant but quite serviceable Madison Square Garden as part of a very ambitious and complicated scheme to create a new train terminal within the James A. Farley Post Office Building, also designed by McKim, Mead & White, across Eighth Avenue from the existing Madison Square Garden. In early October, 2007, Vornado Real Estate Trust began erecting scaffolding around the hotel, which, according to an August 14, 2007 article by Julie Satow in The New York Sun was netting "Vornado $30 million in gross profit annually."

These new plans are a central part of a much larger plan by the city to significantly redevelop much of southwest midtown Manhattan, a plan that involves an expansion of the Javits Convention Center, the creation of a major new angled boulevard between 42nd and 34th Streets to be known as Hudson Yards, and the creation of a major new residential and office complex on platforms over the east and west train yards between 30th and 33rd Streets east of 10th Avenue, and an extension to the west of the 7 subway line.

This is a heady brew that if executed would result in a dramatic new mixed-use district that would be about the size of the Financial District in Lower Manhattan. While it would take several years to simmer, it could prove to be competitive with the renaissance of Lower Manhattan and the redevelopment of Ground Zero given the historic proclivity of some business executives to want to avoid a commute downtown.

An environmental study released in October, 2007 by The Empire State Development Corporation has proposed a two-option plan, one of which is dependent on the relocation of the present Madison Square Garden to the west end of the Farley building. The owners of the Garden, however, have not yet agreed to the plan. Another component of the state plan might permit the transfer of undeveloped air rights over the Farley building to sites on the existing superblock with the Garden, the One Penn Plaza office building that replaced the original train station and to sites on either side of the even taller Two Penn Plaza office building in the middle of the block bounded by Seventh and Eighth Avenues and 33rd and 34th Streets.

At one point, Vornado was planning to build two very tall office buildings on the site of the existing Garden, but in recent months public officials were reported to have decided against such a plan as too crowded. The design of the planned towers was never released to the public but were understood to have been exquisite skyscrapers.

The state's plans include options to transfer the unused air rights to sites within a new Penn Station "District" whose boundaries would extend across Seventh Avenue and the plans would include an incentive bonus of about 2.7 million square feet of developable space though the environmental document provided no information on how such a huge figure was arrived at, or the justification for the greatly increased zoning envelopes envisioned in the "District." The "District" and much of the enacted "Hudson Yards Zoning" have the highest zoning permitted in the city for many of the contained parcels, a 30 floor-to-area-ratio (FAR), whereas the highest FARs elsewhere in the city now are generally 10 to 15.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority recently announced the five joint ventures that submitted bids for the development of its exposed rail yards near the Hudson River and some of the ventures reportedly included commitments to relocate there by Condé Nast and Morgan Stanley, major tenants in relatively new buildings in Times Square, and Fox, which is a major tenant in a building on the Avenue of the Americas near Times Square.

As an indication of the rather incredible "momentum" that has suddenly been generated for reshaping an area notorious for its uninspired architect and very substantial traffic problems in the nearby Garment Center and the Lincoln Tunnel was the recent disclosure that Merrill Lynch was considered relocating from the World Financial Center at Battery Park City into a very large skyscraper on the existing site of the Hotel Pennsylvania, which is one of very many sites in the vicinity owned by Vornado Real Estate Trust.

The Merrill Lynch plan is astounding given recent disclosures about the fact that it has lost several billion dollars this year in investments related to sub-prime mortgages and that a move uptown might cost it about one billion dollars more than remaining in Lower Manhattan. The relocation plan is all the more stunning given that it would be damaging to the image of Lower Manhattan was a financial capital. On October 27, 2007, the front page lead article in The New York Times by Landon Thomas Jr. and Jenny Anderson indicated that Merrill Lynch was weighing the ouster of its top officer, E. Stanley O'Neal in the "wake of a third-quarter loss of $2.3 billion and an $8.4 billion charge for failed credit and mortgage-related investments." The article also indicated that Mr. O'Neal, who received $48 million last year from Merrill Lynch, "also clashed with his directors over an approach he made to a rival bank, Wachovia, for a possible merger." An accompanying article by Eric Dash indicated that Mr. O'Neal is entitled to $30 million in retirement benefits as well as $129 million in stock and option holdings "that would be top of the roughly $160 million he took home in his nearly five years on the job," adding that "Mr. O'Neal would walk away with an even bigger pay package if he left after a merger - a potential $274 million payout."

Both the Times articles on Mr. O'Neal October 27, 2007 did not discuss Mr. O'Neal's apparent intention to abandon Lower Manhattan and erect a skyscraper with enormous trading floors on the site of the Hotel Pennsylvania.

Clearly, this is very, very, very high stakes gambling. One suspects that Mr. O'Neal may become almost as infamous as Kenneth Lay of Enron fame and perhaps the controversy over his leadership might waylay a relocation of Merrill Lynch to the Hotel Pennsylvania site.

Old image of hotel viewed from the southwest

Old image of hotel viewed from the southwest

Incredibly, in the midst of all this fast and furious juggling of Manhattan's future by a handful of major players the preservation community has been relatively quiet about the Hotel Pennsylvania.

It is one of the last surviving examples of very large hotels built to accommodate train travelers. In the Grand Central Terminal neighborhood, the former Commodore and Biltmore Hotels have been transformed from their original elegant designs as part as Warren & Wetmore's grand "Terminal City" complex and rumors abound that the Roosevelt Hotel, the last of that district's major "railroad hotels" may be demolished. The Roosevelt is more elegant than the Hotel Pennsylvania but the Hotel Pennsylvania was designed by McKim, Mead & White specifically to complement the spectacular and very imposing entrance of the original Pennsylvania Station. Furthermore, unlike the Grand Central Terminal precinct that has been largely transformed from a masonry district to a polished granite and glass area, the Hotel Pennsylvania is the northernmost of three similar substantial masonry buildings on the east side of Seventh Avenue south of 33rd Street and one block south of the great Macy's masonry edifice and the masonry edifice of the tall Nelson Tower on the northwest corner of Seventh Avenue and 34th Street. Just across 32nd Street from the Hotel Pennsylvania is the handsome Affininia Hotel that was formerly Southgate Towers and originally the Hotel Governor Clinton and which was built in 1929 with 1,200 rooms.

While many commentators have remarked on the fact that numerous ownership changes at the Hotel Pennsylvania over the years have made major changes to the interiors, which are not of the luxury class, its facade is stately and handsome. Furthermore, it is not a small building and at one time boasted that it was the city's largest.

Old photograph of hotel viewed from the west

Old photograph of hotel viewed from the west looking down 33rd Street

The hotel, whose address is 401 Seventh Avenue, was erected by the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1919 and was operated by Ellsworth Statler and was acquired by the Hotels Statler Company in 1949 and renamed the New York Statler Hotel. After all 17 Statler hotels were acquired by Conrad Hilton in 1954, it became The Statler Hilton. In the early 1980s, Hilton sold the property and it became the New York Statler again. In 1984, it was acquired by the Penta chain and became the New York Penta. In 1992, it reverted to the Hotel Pennsylvania.

The hotel's telephone number, Pennsylvania 6-5000 is supposedly the New York City telephone number in longest continuous use and was famous as the name of a song by the Glenn Miller band. Other bands that played in its ballroom were the Dorsey Brothers, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington.

View up Seventh Avenue with hotel center right

View up Seventh Avenue with hotel center right

In January, 2007, Lehman Brothers expressed interest in the Hotel Pennsylvania site, subsequently Merrill Lynch became the primary potential user of the site. According to an October 25, 2007 article in The New York Times by Charles V. Bagli, Merrill Lynch was negotiating a "billion-dollar 65-year lease" that called for demolishing the hotel and erecting a tower with 80,000-square-foot trading floors in its base.

In his October 15, 2007 article in The New York Observer, Chris Shott reported that Gregory Jones, a member of HOPE (Hackers on Planet Earth), which has been holding a conference at the hotel for more than a decade, had mounted a campaign to preserve the hotel and nominated it for designation by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. A section of the organization's website,, is devoted to news and commentary about Vornado and its plans for the hotel site, Mr. Schott wrote.

Mr. Schott quoted Kent Barwick, the president of the Municipal Art Society, as stating that “Preserving that hotel, which has become very seedy, is not anywhere near as important as reusing the Farley building and creating a new rail station.”

It is neither easy nor fair to compare one landmark to another. The former McAlpin Hotel on the southeast corner of Broadway and 34th Street is similar in layout with multiple light courts to the Hotel Pennsylvania but it is a higher quality design and location. Its survival, however, should not be an excuse for getting rid of all similar but possibly inferior buildings. What's goose for the gander in one location may be truffles for a pig in another. Some locations need good old buildings more than others. Sometimes a well-proportioned older building with some nice details makes for an excellent contrast with a glossy, glass-clad skyscraper. Sometimes older well-proportioned buildings with nice details, such as large entrance columns, good masonry and cornices, make for excellent conversions to other uses such as apartments or small users of office space. (Not all businesses require 80,000-square-foot trading floors!)

Some commentators have made light of the historic significance of the Hotel Pennsylvania, but compared to the thousands of relatively insignificant structures in many of the city's "historic" districts the fame of the hotel as the venue for many of the country's greatest bands is not inconsequential.

The Hotel Pennsylvania is what McKim, Mead & White, the greatest architects in the city's history, felt was appropriate to confront travelers exiting from its great and very greatly lamented original Pennsylvania Station.

There is something a little obscene about demolishing perfectly workable structures whose replacement costs would be extremely high. While demolition may satisfy some Americans' thirst for violence, it is often an extravagant and inexcusable urban exercise especially in light of the country's interesting record of "adaptive re-use" of historic structures. The Hotel Pennsylvania is not a blight on the city's urbanscape.

Given existing zoning, the bulk of the Hotel Pennsylvania does not leave any "undeveloped" air rights. Some commentators have suggested that a Hearst Building scenario might work, but that is unlikely. Since the city is conjuring up bonus space in its Farley/Penn Station schemes, why not give an enormous amount of additional air rights for saving the Hotel Pennsylvania especially since public officials apparently want to create a wide district capable of receiving air rights and especially since some commentators actually think that the city's core personality is based to a great extent on very tall buildings and that New York has fallen significantly behind the rest of the world in big skyscrapers.

It was somewhat surprising, and refreshing, therefore, that the landmarks committee of Community Board 4 voted Tuesday night 6 to 1 to recommend that the Landmarks Preservation Commission designate the hotel as in individual landmark.

Joyce Matz, a long-term member of the Community Board and a preservationist who holds projects up to the letter of the law so to speak, told the committee that she had asked three architectural historians about the significance of the hotel and she said that all three historians maintained the project was not the best work of McKim, Mead & White and she pointed out that that it was not designed by one of the original partners. Such comments, however, are very misleading. Gordon Bunshaft and I. M. Pei did not design all the masterpieces by their respective firms, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and Pei Freed Cobb, and as anyone who follows the starchitect gossip it is clear that not every project by a star architect is a masterpiece. Other comments read at the meeting by "preservationists" such as Peg Breen of the New York Landmarks Conservancy and Kent Barwick of the Municipal Art Society were not at all consistent with the established principles of historic preservation in New York City. Ms. Breen suggested that the hotel was seedy and not well loved, which has absolutely nothing to do with the building's exterior. Mr. Barwick, one of the most intelligent of all New Yorkers, apparently tried to avoid the question by suggesting that it was not as important a landmark as the Farley Building, which is true, but which also wrongly implies that the Farley Building is a masterpiece, which it is certainly not.

The committee's vote, of course, is not binding on the Community Board and the board's vote is only advisory in the city's Uniform Land Use Review Process (ULURP). Nonetheless, the committee's rather courageous vote is bound to slow down the steamroller momentum behind all these gigantic plans. (10/31/07)

The Community Board voted 21 to 8 to 8 with two present and not voting to recommend November 8, 2007 that the Hotel Pennsylvania be designated an official city landmark by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

During its "public session," the board heard testimony from many employees at the hotel including its doorman that the preservation of the hotel was important to save jobs, an emotional issue that directly related to the building's merits as a potential landmark. Richard Collins told the meeting that the last band to play at the hotel was the Buddy Rich band in 1980 with singers Mel Tormé and Helen O'Connell.

A long discussion then ensued among board members about the resolution.

Meile Rockefeller cautioned that by "rushing" to recommend designation the board might be "acting too fast" in light of the many developments under consideration in the vicinity. She asked another member, John Mills, what effect the designation of the hotel might have on schemes to transfer air rights from the Farley post office building and Mr. Mills indicated that it was not yet possible based on public documents to make such calculations.

Some members questioned the historic value of the hotel and Howard Mendes, chairman of the board's landmarks committee, reminded them that a landmark's value is not based solely on architectural merit or historical considerations, pointing out that the hotel had considerable cultural history as a leading venue in its Café Rouge ballroom for many of the country's most famous band in the Swing Era such as Glenn Miller, at which point several female members of the board broke out into song singing "Pennsylvania 6-5000," one of his most famous songs whose title is the hotel's phone number that is still in use.

Mr. Mendes also noted that some preservationists "are more concerned about the Farley building and are willing to look the other way." "This hotel has a lot of history of its own," he said, adding that "you might not like every detail, but it is certainly imposing."

Layla Law-Gisiko reminded the board that the hotel was historically important for building over the tracks and being the city's largest hotel when it was built.

Joyce Matz, a long-time board member and strong preservationist, read a statement explaining her intention to vote against the resolution. She said she was in favor of saving the building but that the community must look for other ways to save it than landmark designation such as public campaigns and appeals to the developers to study possible ways to "recycle" the building for other uses. She said that it was unlikely that the commission will hold a hearing quickly and added that an official landmark designation by the commission "won't happen." "It is an exercise in futility. It can take years and never happen," she said." She did not explain why she thought the commission would not designate the hotel adding that the hotel was "not up to the best work" of McKim, Mead & White.

The board's resolution noted that the chief designer of the hotel at McKim, Mead & White was "William Symmes Richardson, who also helped design Pennsylvania Station, as well as the National City Bank Building in New York, the Girard Trust Company Building in Philadelphia and the Bank of Montreal, Canada." It also noted that Ellsworth Statler was contracted to run to hotel that originally had 2.200 bathrooms, 3,537 beds and the world's first "high rise" elevators. The resolution also noted that much of the Indiana limestone and Milford pink granite at the building's base has been painted over and that there are several Rosso Levanto marble decorative spandrels between the windows on the first two floors. It also observed that on West 32nd Street the building forms four individual towers partially conjoined at the building's center to maximize exposure to sunlight and airflow while on West 33rd Street the two central towers are fully conjoined. (11/8/07)

The Historic Districts Council, one of the city's leading preservationist organizations, sent a letter December 4, 2007, to Robert H. Tierney, the chairman of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, urging the landmark designation of the Hotel Pennsylvania on the east side of Seventh Avenue between 32nd and 33rd Streets.

"Much discussion, planning and money have gone into the planning of the revival of the Pennsylvania Station area. It is ironic that the Hotel Pennsylvania, designed by the same architectural firm [McKim, Mead & White as the station, should not be part of these plans. Additionally, in this boom time of New York City hotels, what was thought to be the largest hotel in the world at the time of its opening should not be consigned to the dustbin of history," wrote Simon Bankoff, executive director of the council.

"After designing Pennsylvania Station and the Farley Post Office, the architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White was commissioned in 1917 to design and construct a hotel to accommodate the railroad's passengers. The elegant hotel...opened two years later" and "its Cafe Rouge was one of the most popular nightclubs in the city during the 1930s and 1940s featuring such performers as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, the Dorsey Brothers and the Glenn Miller Orchestra who immortalized in song the hotel's phone number, Pennsylvania 6-5000," Mr. Bankoff wrote, urging that "we respectfully ask that a designation hearing be held for this significant, endangered building." (12/10/07)

In February, 2008, a spokesman for the landmarks commission confirmed that the agency had decided not to hold a hearing on the hotel's possible designation as a landmark. (2/24/08)

Vornado Realty Trust indicated in a letter sent to its investors that appeared in a filing yesterday with the Securities and Exchange Commission that it is "hopeful that a scaled-back version and perhaps even a doubly scaled-back version" of the proposed redevelopment of the Farley Post Office building on Eighth Avenue between 31st and 33rd Streets "will happen."

Ambitious plans to relocate Madison Square Garden into the western half of the full-block post office structure to open up its present site on the other side of Eighth Avenue to a major renovation of the existing Pennsylvania train station and permit the transfer of several million square feet of development rights in the vicinity were thwarted by the announcement last month that the Garden would stay put and renovate its existing structure.

Vornado is a major property owner in the area and is a partner with The Related Companies in a joint venture in the proposed $14 billion redevelopment scheme involving the post office.

The eastern end of the post office building, which was designed by McKim, Mead & White with a two-block-long colonnade along Eighth Avenue, has been planned as new train station for New Jersey transit.

The smaller plan for the post office site, known as Moynihan Station, received many needed approvals and has the required funding already set aside, based on costs in 2006.

In his letters to investors, Steve Roth, CEO of Vornado Realty Trust, said that "In my view, there has been too much public endorsement of the idea of this project for nothing to happen."

Vornado and Related had been designated as co-developers for a smaller-scale version for the post office redevelopment by the Pataki administration, and Vornado owns about 7.5 million square feet of commercial space in the area including the Hotel Pennsylvania on the east side of Seventh Avenue between 32nd and 33rd Streets that it was considering tearing down for a new headquarters building for Merrill Lynch. Merrill Lynch subsequently withdrew from that plan and some preservationists campaigned unsuccessfully to convince the Landmark Preservation Commission to designate it as a landmark since it was also designed by McKim, Mead & White and had been at one time the city's largest hotel and also was the venue for many of the leading bands of the 1930s and 1940s.

Mr. Roth said that the planning process for the post office building "has frustrated all parties," adding that "It has been three years so far, a long, complicated road. The project requires public sector expenditures which, in the end, may not all be there….But in the end, it is surely worth the effort."

"I am hopeful that something good will happen here," he said.

"Much has already happened," Mr. Roth continued, "to increase the value of our Penn Station assets. The Penn Plaza District and the West Side of New York have been discovered and are the beneficiaries of an enormous amount of recent and current activity. A huge swath has already been rezoned as the future growth corridor of Manhattan. Tishman Speyer has won the bidding to develop the Hudson Rail Yards into a 12 million square foot, 20-year, Canary Wharf-type project. Brookfield has announced 5 million square feet…. Vornado was the pioneer here, and owns the best and the lion's share of the real estate surrounding Pennsylvania Station - the gateway to the new West Side….The Hotel Pennsylvania, Seventh Avenue at 33rd Street, generated a best ever $37.9 million of EBITDA in 2007, $10.4 million more than in 2006, a 37.8% increase ….The credit crisis and Merrill's management changes disrupted this deal, but the fact remains that our site was the last man standing in a rigorous citywide search."

The planned $500 million renovation of the Garden will expand its lobby from 12,000 to 25,000 square feet, its concourses from 46,000 to 101,000 square feet, its restrooms from 12,400 to 19,500 square feet and add 20 floor level suites and 19 ledge suites. (4/8/08)

On July 19, 2010, proponents of landmark designation for the hotel sent the media an article about the hotel and the Hotel Commodore in the March 1919 issue of The Architecture Review, which made a pretty good case for designation:
Rendering of hotel from March 1919 issue of The Architecture Review

"These hotels are not only of large size but are designed to administer amply to physical needs.  They also enjoy locations that are surcharged with impressiveness, the two great railroad stations in themselves affording striking illustrations of things done in a big way and giving abundant evidence of the facility with which our American life adapts itself to developing things nobly and on a large scale....In designing the hotel for the same owners, the architects [McKim, Mead & White] have studied to relate the two structures in scale and expression.  Attention is called to the setting-back from the regular city building lines of both the station and the hotel to produce the effect of a plaza....The Seventh Avenue wing was set aside for especially attractive rooms designed to give the highest class of accommodations.  These rooms overlook the Pennsylvania Station....In designing the lobby, the architects made an effort to produce an imposing effect, a tremendous vestibule for a hotel of extraordinary proportions.  The result is that one is immediately impressed with the feeling of great spaciousness properly related in scale to the great terminal across the street....

Photograph of lobby in The Architecture Review

Photograph of lobby in March 1919 issue of The Architecture Review

"The entire roof on the west, or Seventh Avenue end, is occupied by a roof restaurant usable all the year around.  It is really a big roof house and can be used as a summer dining room or during the other parts of the year as a banquet room. The roofs of the other wings are left open for future development.  It is proposed that the roof of the second wing be used for an open-air roof-garden, and it has been connected by a bridge across the first court with the roof restaurant.  Provision has been made in the framing of the building by which scheme of bridges can be extended across the entire series of courts."

Photograph of interior in March 1919 issue of The Architecture Review

Photograph of interior in March 1919 issue of The Architecture Review

"Entering the main lobby, the effect of spaciousness is so happily impressed on the mind, that the thought of being at the bottom of a twenty-story building is entirely lost.  This effect is enhanced by he use of a metal-and-glass ceiling over the central portion of the main lobby, lighted from above by indirect electric lighting.  This gives a glow of moderate intensity, supplemented by various ceiling fixtures in the galleries and by standards on the floor.  The main lobby is Roman in architectural character, in scale and detail harmonious with the motifs adopted for the Pennsylvania Station, but with a domestic note.  Extensive use has been made of artificial marble made of Keen's cement, applied to the walls an columns and finished by polishing in the same way that marble is worked....The ballroom, the foyer and the parlors which lead into it are ...carried out in the spirit of the Italian Renaissance.  In outline and decoration the ballroom shows a serious effort to preserve the traditions of the best examples of this period, and inspiration has been drawn from the fresco decorations by Giovanni da Udine in the Villa Madama and the Vatican in Rome....In working out the color scheme of decorations the architects called into consultation the emininant artist, Jules Guerin, who was of the greatest assistance in producing distinguished and harmonious results."

"There is an absence of the familiar tendency toward the pompous, over-rich and rigidly formal in both the treatment of the walls and ceilings and in the furnishings.  This is a distinct improvement, for it brings to hotel decoration a new dignity, which it could never have attained so long as ostentation was among its leading characteristics.  This new tendency brings with it also an air of homelike comfort that contributes very largely to the satisfaction of the guest wearied by traveling, and does much to increase his esteem for the hotel."

Rendering of 15 Penn Plaza

Center tower in picture is rendering of proposed new Vornado tower that would replace much lower Hotel Pennsylvania

The owners of the 1,250-foot-high Empire State Building have criticized the plan of Steven Roth and his Vornado Realty Trust to demolish the nearby Hotel Pennsylvania  and replace it with a 1,190-foot-high office tower.

The proposed skyscraper has been designed by Pelli Clarke Pelli, the firm that designed the Beacon Tower on Lexington Avenue  between 58th and 59th Streets for Mr. Roth.

The Hotel Pennsylvania is 22 stories high and was considered the largest hotel in the world when it was built.  It is across Seventh Avenue from the former site of Penn Station and both structures were designed by the famous architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White.

Recent attempts to have the hotel designated an official city landmark failed.

The proposed tower was recently entered into the city's official land-use review process and Community Board Five voted 36 to 1 with one abstention to deny the Vornado application, expressing "serious concerns" about "an application that offers few public benefits" in exchange for significant increases in size through special permits.  Its vote is advisory.

In a June 11, 2010 letter to Amanda Burden, the chair of the City Planning Commission, Vikki Barbero wrote that "The Commission recently considered the Jean Nouvel/MoMA building, and despite noting the proposed building's exemplary design and the lasting effects that this project would generate for landmarks and cultural institutions, it voted to reduce its size due to its impact on the city skyline and the surrounding neighborhood."

 "In comparison," the letter continued, "the 15 Penn Plaza application wholly lacks the MoMA project's distinguished architectural features, produces no benefits for landmark preservation or cultural access, would have detrimental impacts on neighborhood density and traffic, and would notably diminish, not enhance the skyline position of its iconic neighbor, the Empire State Building from the west, thereby fundamentally altering and diminishing New York City's skyline in a way few projects have in decades.  Should 15 Penn Plaza not be held to the same standards and criteria as Nouvel/MoMa."

 The commission "decapitated" the Nouveau project and insisted its design be lowered by about 150 feet to be more compatible with the Empire State Building.

 In a June 7, 2010 letter to Ms. Burden, Peter Malkin of Malkin Holdings, the owner of the Empire State Building, pointed out that the Empire State Building "is not discussed, or even mentioned in the Historical Resources section of the proposed project's Draft Environmental Impact Statement," which states that the standard established distance that should be considered is 400 feet and the distance between them is greater.

 "Applicant's exclusion of ESB from 15 Penn Plaza Project's impacts on historical resources may have been appropriate in ordinary circumstances; however, there are not ordinary circumstances.  The scale of the 15 Penn Plaza Project is immense, more immense than ESB," Mr. Malkin argued, noting that the CEQR Manual "concedes that a larger study is appropriate for 'projects that result in changes that are highly visible and can be perceived from farther than 400 feet and could affect the context of historic resources some distance away....'"

 Mr. Malkin also raised questions about the proposed tower's shadows, height, traffic and possible spire that might interfere with existing transmissions.

 In an article today at, Elliot Brown wrote that "Borough President Scott Stringer gave a conditional non-binding recommendation in favor of Vornado's plan, and the City Planning Commission approved it with minor modifications.

 It still needs to be approved by the City Council and it's not clear that Vornado has a tenant and/or financing yet to proceed if it is approved.

View from Long Island City showing how 15 Penn Plaza changes view of Empire State Building

View of proposed Vornado tower from cemetery in Queens

An article by Matt Chaban published today at showed several renderings of how a planned 1,216-foot-high skyscraper on the site of the Hotel Pennsylvania at 33rd Street and Seventh Avenue would visually impact the Empire State Building and the midtown skyline.

The article published a statement by Anthony Malkin, president of Malkin Holdings, the owner of the Empire State Building, "about everything that's wrong with this building any how it just might ruin the city":

"Would a tower be allowed next to The Eiffel Tower or Big Ben’s clock tower? Just as the world will never tolerate a drilling rig next to The Statue of Liberty, why should governmental bonuses and waivers be granted to allow a structure as tall and bulky at 15 Penn Plaza to be built 900 feet away from New York City’s iconic Landmark and beacon?

View of 15 Penn Plaza from the west

View of 15 Penn Plaza from the west

"We believe that the public approval process to date for the proposed 15 Penn Plaza has failed to address the interests of New Yorkers. The City Charter did not create the ULURP process so as to provide a speedy approval for a speculative office tower for which there is no planned commencement. The Developer’s Environmental Impact Statement at first ignored, and then (by last minute amendment) gratuitously denied, any impact on the largest Landmark in New York City from the proposed 1,200 foot tower to rise at some unspecified future date on the present site of the Hotel Pennsylvania.

"The people of New York City have already made their sentiments clear: Community Board 5 voted down this proposal 36 to 1, so the only hope for protection of this public legacy now sits with the City Council.

"There may be buildings taller than the Empire State Building. But no building so close to the Empire State Building should be allowed through discretionary official exceptions to be as bulky and tall as 15 Penn Plaza. The height and bulk of 15 Penn Plaza are the result of waivers and bonuses greatly in excess of code. Another waiver granted 15 Penn Plaza the right to build without setbacks. At only 67 stories, 15 Penn Plaza would be as tall as the 102nd floor of the Empire State Building, and would, if built, be as much a scar on the complexion of New York City as the loss of Penn Station.

"We are working with other New Yorkers and concerned parties who care about this landmark to write and speak to the City Council and its Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises on August 23 in opposition to this effort to mar permanently the iconic signature which creates the world’s most famous skyline.”

Planning Commission Chair Amanda Burden said the property, directly across from Penn Station and Madison Square Garden, is an "ideal location for high density development."

"At nearly 80,000 square feet, the site offers an opportunity for precisely the type of well-designed…office building that New York City needs to stay globally competitive," she said before casting a 'yea' vote.

In an article yesterday at, Elliot Brown wrote that "Mr. Malkin has caught at least a bit of traction: On Tuesday, the New York Landmarks Conservancy decided to speak out about the tower on account of the effect on the Empire State Building; and other civic groups are considering similar actions."

"Mr. Malkin's argument is not without precedent," the article continued, "at least if one is to look at the model set by the Bloomberg administration last year, when the City Planning Commission chopped 200 feet off the height of the 1,250-foot-tall, Jean Nouvel-designed tower next to MoMA. The reasoning, from the Planning Commission, was that the design for the tower's top was not shown to merit 'being in the zone of the Empire State Building's iconic spire.' 'It's hard to understand how City Planning could say that 15 Penn Plaza would have no impact on the Empire State Building when they already lowered a proposed 53rd Street building for that very reason,' said Peg Breen, president of the New York Landmarks Conservancy."  (8/18/10)

Vornado rendering

Vornado rendering showing 15 Penn Plaza between Hudson Yards and Empire State Building

The zoning and franchise subcommittee of the land-use committee of the City Council held a hearing August 23, 2010 on several applications by Vornado Realty Trust for zoning variances to permit it to erect an office tower nearly twice as tall as current zoning allows on the site of the Hotel Pennsylvania on Seventh Avenue between 32nd and 33rd Streets.

The 22-story hotel was designed by McKim, Mead & White to be compatible with the firm's fabled Pennsylvania Station across the avenue that was demolished in the 1960s.

Vornado's proposed tower, which is known as 15 Penn Plaza, would rise about 1,200 feet, about the height of the Empire State Building without its spire 900 feet to the east.  In exchange for the major zoning changes for its projects, Vornado is offering to make about $100 million in improvements to local subway stations including a reopening of the former "Gimbel's Passageway" to the Avenue of the Americas.

Vornado, a major owner of real estate in the area, also argues that its project would provide jobs although it has not committed to going forward until it has  a major tenant.

The Vornado proposal has been bitterly opposed by Anthony Malkin, president of the company that owns the Empire State Building on the grounds that it would "crowd" his building and block many views of it from the west.  He took out a full-page advertisement in yesterday's edition of The New York Times in which he said his building "is THE iconic image of New York City's skyline" and that "The City Planning Commission itself has held that a certain standard must be met in exchange for great height," adding that "Less than one year ago a tower had 200 feet of height removed by the Commission because it did not belong ' the zone of the Empire State Building's iconic spire.'"

According to an article in Architects Newspaper by Matt Chaban, Vornado released a rendering, shown at the right, that showed its proposed tower, the Empire State Building and the Hudson Yards proposal "to make the case that it is not the only project reshaping lower Midtown.

David Greenbaum, the president of Vornado, told the subcommittee that "New York as a city has to grow," the article said.

Mr. Malkin, the article continued, told the subcommittee that Vornado could achieve its goals with a shorter tower with setbacks, something in the 800- to 850-foot range.

The subcommittee members expressed considerable ambivalence about the project, wary about its size and impact on the skyline, but also noting the need to remain competitive with other financial centers around the world.

Leroy Comrie, the influential Queens councilman who chairs the Land-Use Committee, told Mr. Malkin that "You’re asking us to look at many things beyond this one project.” The article said that "His tone was severe, suggesting at once that such a policy was needed, but also that he was neither prepared nor even interested in formulating it at this point."

In an article in the August 24, 2010 edition of The New York Times, Charles V. Bagli wrote that Councilman Comrie "posed a final question...that seemed to foretell how he would vote: 'Is New York City a snapshot taken in 2010 to be held in perpetuity, or is New York City an evolving, dynamic entity?" 

An editorial in the August 24, 2010 edition of The New York Post said "Should the New York City skyline be forever - like a bug cast in amber?  Of course not"

An editorial in the Augusts 24, 2010 edition of The New York Daily News said that "since the invention of the electric elevator..., the city's silhouette has been made and remade, with buildings gaining dominance only to be overshadowed with the ascent of new attention-getters," adding "so it is today, even for the grand old marvel of the Empire State."

Rendering of Vornado's 15 Penn Plaza

Rendering of 15 Penn Plaza replacement for Hotel Pennsylvania

The Land Use Committee of the City Council voted 19 to 1 August 25, 2010 to approve a plan by Vornado Realty Trust to erect a very tall office tower 900 feet west of the Empire State Building, whose owner had argued it would "ruin views of his iconic tower, and thus the city as a whole," according to an article by Matt Chaban at

"In fact, the issue of the skyline barely even came up, and when it did, the council members...essentially said New York must build to remain great," the article continued.

"When Vornado showed up at Monday’s hearings without a specific plan for how it would ensure a portion of the contractors on the project would be MWBEs [women- and minority-owned business enterprises]," the article noted, "the committee members were displeased. Councilwoman Letitia James asked if the company even had any sort of minority hiring practices, to which the head of the New York Office, David Greenbaum, joked that he was not sure but had had a party recently at which there were many women, and his wife asked which were employees and which were spouses and he said, with a chuckle, that it was more of the former. James was not amused."

"Vornado proffered a last minute MWBE plan before today’s vote," the article said, "calling for at least 15 percent of all construction work to be done by MWBEs. Whether the project would have been torpedoed without it is hard to say, but it did little to assuage council members complaints at the same time they overwhelmingly voted for the project. James Saunders, one of the council’s lions on MWBE issues, made his frustration known. 'This is a tepid response to a need, a very tepid response,' he said of the new MWBE plan. 'We can’t go on like this. That we even have to have this discussion shows that there needs to be some real dialogue here.'”

Yesterday Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg came out strongly in favor of the Vornado scheme: “I don’t understand that. You know, anybody that builds a building in New York City changes its skyline. We don’t have to run around to every other owner and apologize. This is something that’s great for this city. Competition’s a wonderful thing. One guy owns a building. He’d like to have it be the only tall building. I’m sorry that’s not the real world, nor should it be.”

The planned tower, which is known as 15 Penn Plaza, would rise on the site of the Hotel Pennsylvania, which was designed by McKim Mead & White to be compatible with the firm's great Penn Station train terminal that was demolished in the 1960s.  The hotel occupies most of the western part of the block bounded by Seventh Avenue and the Avenue of the Americas and 32nd and 33rd Streets.

The planned new tower has been designed by Pelli Clarke Pelli, which designed the Beacon Tower for Vornado. 

Vornado, which has many properties in and around the train station, was seeking several zoning variances that would enable it to build almost double what the current zoning would allow for the site. 

The Landmarks Preservation Commission declined to designate the handsome hotel as a landmark despite the fact that it and the Roosevelt Hotel are the last vestiges in midtown of the very large and major hotel properties that were erected to accommodate train travelers.

Anthony Malkin, an owner of the Empire State Building, campaigned against the granting of the wavers, declaring the proposed building a "monstrosity" and noting that recently the City Planning Commission had ordered 200 feet "chopped" off the top of a proposed new tower designed by Jean Nouvel adjacent to the Museum of Modern Art because it infringed on the iconic skyline solitude of the Empire State Building and it is almost a mile further away from it than 15 Penn Plaza.

In exchange for the gigantic increase in zoning for its site, Vornado plans to reopen the "Gimbel's passageway" and install subway entrances in the planned building, at an estimated cost of $100 million.

Zoning should be based on land-use principles and not monetary value and, anyway, $100 million is essentially peanuts when discussing a 1,200-foot-high office tower in midtown.  The City Planning Commission was completely wrong to "decapitate" Nouvel's slanted skyscraper on the basis of its relationship with the top of the Empire State Building but why hasn't the mayor severely criticized if not fired Amanda Burden for such a preposterous ruling.  

Furthermore, the Pelli-Clarke-Pelli design of the proposed tower is horrible.   It is just a giant phallic symbol to glorify the city's total dedication to money rather aesthetics.  The aesthetic debate in this instance was unnecessary as the amount of zoning waivers and variances here borders beyond the obscene.  Normally a transit improvement might warrant a 20 percent increase in FAR! (8/25/10)

An article September 2, 2010 by former Parks Commissioner Henry J. Stern at noted that the chair of Community Board 5 was not amused by the August 26, 2010 vote of the City Council, 46 to 1, to approve five variances to permit Vornado Realty Trust to erect an office tower of about 1,200 feet on the site of the Hotel Pennsylvania on Seventh Avenue between 32nd and 33rd Streets.

According to Mr. Stern, the chair, Vikki Barbero, made the following "penetrating comments::

"The ULURP process has ended and the Council has made its final determination. We remain distressed and dismayed, however, by the level of discussion and debate both in the media and at the Council.

"The issue before the Council was not principally about women and minority employment, as important as this issue continues to be in all job areas. Yet, if you were present for the Council debate you would have thought it was at the heart of the matter being voted on. The issue before the Council was not about a battle between two major real estate developers, as many press reports made it out.

"The issue before the Council was not about the need to foster jobs during this bad economic climate, for even the developer admits they won't be building for years to come. Yet, a number of our political leaders used that bogus argument as an excuse to support the project.

"And the issue before the Council was certainly not about sticking it to the Empire State Building because it failed to light up for Mother Teresa....

"One development should not be permitted to set a bad precedent for the next, as we believe this one does by upzoning an entire block without a rationale and with limited resultant public benefit. A city as dense as ours, with so many competing interests, needs to thoughtfully and inclusively plan for its future and not let one wealthy and powerful developer override that process.

"That was the debate that was entirely missing this week both in most of the media and, even worse, at the City Council. We were disheartened and discouraged by its absence."

Mr. Stern, who is president of New York Civic, declared in his column that "Ms. Barbero is spot on," adding that "On this one, the CPC was clearly in the tank, abandoning its customary guardianship and attention to size, taste and design in its eagerness to approve the tower."

"We believe," he continued, "that what happened in this case is a textbook example of unsound public policy, favoritism to a particular extremely well-connected developer, and lack of regard for the future of the commercial neighborhood around Penn and Moynihan Stations.....This is a case of the city making an extraordinary gift, probably worth hundreds of millions of dollars, to one of its richest and most influential developers. It is a top-down decision, clearly made at City Hall and not by the Planning Commission, which should have been embarrassed at the tricks they had to turn."

"It is commonplace," Mr. Stern concluded, "to denounce the bungling, self-serving scoundrels of Albany, who are a continuing embarrassment to the State of New York. But what does one say for municipal decision makers when their motive is not corrupt, but uncaring reliance upon the paternal supposition that money knows best."  (9/3/10)


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