Council approved Hines’s 1,050-foot MoMA tower

Council refused Hines’s request to restore the 200 feet cut from the proposed MoMA tower. On October 14, 2009, the City Council approved a modified version of Hines Interests’ proposal to build a mixed-use tower adjacent to the Museum of Modern Art complex at 53 West 53rd Street in Midtown, Manhattan. The original proposal called for an 85-story, 1,250-foot tower that would include 51,949 sq.ft. of additional gallery space for MoMA, a 147,965 sq.ft. hotel, and 458,412 sq.ft. of residential floor area. In order to build the project, Hines requested approval to transfer a combined 411,000 sq.ft. of development rights from the landmarked University Club and St. Thomas Church.

At the City Planning Commission’s July 22 hearing, opponents expressed concerns about the project’s impact on the neighborhood, arguing the tower was inappropriate for the site’s mid-block location. The Commission approved the project, but it reduced the tower’s height by 200 feet, noting that the building did not merit reaching the height of the Empire State Building, the City’s tallest building. 6 CityLand 138 (Oct. 15, 2009).

At the Council’s Zoning & Franchises Subcommittee hearing on October 6, representatives of Hines requested that the Council restore the proposed building’s height to 1,250 feet. David Penick, vice president of development at Hines, claimed that the height reduction would “endanger the economics of the entire project” by forcing Hines to eliminate the project’s hotel component. Hines’s attorney, Michael Sillerman, argued that the reduction undermined the building’s architectural integrity and reduced the benefits to the University Club and St. Thomas Church by limiting the amount of development rights needed by Hines to build the project.

Residents and community groups testifying in opposition argued that the skyscraper would disrupt the neighborhood’s quality of life by blocking access to light and increasing pedestrian traffic and vehicle congestion. A representative of the Coalition for Responsible Midtown Development asked the Council to reject the project, referring to the proposal as “lousy planning dressed in fine clothes.” The Coalition’s attorney noted that an alternative design proposal submitted by the Coalition called for a building matching the nearby CBS Building’s 490-foot height. He claimed the alternative design would provide a reasonable context for the block and not create a “total outlier” like Hines’s proposed tower.

The Subcommittee’s vote was laid over, and when it reconvened Council Member Melinda Katz announced several amendments to the project. In addition to refusing to restore the 200 feet cut from the tower, the Subcommittee reduced the project’s hotel component from 147,000 to a maximum of 100,000 sq.ft., eliminating the need for a proposed loading dock on West 54th Street. Katz also said that Hines had agreed to enhance the visibility of MoMA’s sculpture garden along West 54th Street.

The Subcommittee approved the modified proposal, with only Chair Tony Avella voting no. The Land Use Committee approved the project, with Council Member Daniel R. Garodnick joining Avella in voting no. Garodnick, whose district borders the project site, stated that the modifications were “positive changes,” but he said the plan still allows a “breathtakingly tall building on a narrow lot,” which is a cause of great concern for his constituents.

The modified proposal was referred back to the Commission for review, and on October 28, 2009, the full Council approved the project by a vote of 45-3-3.

Council: 53 West 53rd Street/MoMA (Oct. 14, 2009).

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