Letter To The Editor: Shortcomings of the One Vanderbilt Proposal

John West

John West

(Re:  Council Subcommittee Hears Testimony on One Vanderbilt, Apr. 20, 2015)

Dear CityLand:

At the public hearing before the Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises of the Land Use Committee of the City Council last Monday, 13 April, the applicants and supporters of the proposed Vanderbilt Corridor and One Vanderbilt outnumbered those with reservations about the proposals.  They spoke for most of the four hours – the opposition, at two minutes apiece, used 15 or 20 minutes – and in spite of the insightful questions by the councilpersons, particularly Dan Garodnick, one might have gotten the impression that all was fine.

As a counterbalance let me offer the four-minute version of the testimony I gave at the hearing.  I am a member of Community Board Six and the MultiBoard Task Force.  I am also a member of the City Club.  I believe that what I offered is consistent with their main concerns.

I stated that if the City Council is going to approve the proposed zoning for the Vanderbilt Corridor and the special permits thereunder for One Vanderbilt it should first make two changes.  These changes would modify the expectation that all sites within the corridor can achieve 30.0 FAR and would grant One Vanderbilt only the FAR it has really earned.

First, not all of the sites within the Vanderbilt corridor are equal.  Some are better positioned to accommodate greater density than others.  Of the five blocks, the one to be occupied by One Vanderbilt enjoys the most density justifying characteristics:

  • It faces on two wide streets,
  • It overlooks the “air park” above Grand Central,
  • It is adjacent to and will connect to a subway station, and
  • It is adjacent to and will connect to the pedestrian circulation system of Terminal City.


The proposed zoning should be modified to make explicit that sites that enjoy fewer of these density justifying characteristics should be limited to proportionally less maximum FAR.

Second, One Vanderbilt should only be granted bonus floor area for density ameliorating amenities that truly improve the public realm, not for investments that are of little or no real benefit to the community or which should rightly be provided by others.

For example:  the Transit Hall is awkwardly located on 43 Street, adjacent to the building’s loading dock, such that it does not provide a significant public benefit.  If it were located on the opposite corner of the building, on the corner of Madison Avenue and 42 Street, it could provide an important new entrance to Grand Central.  However, the developer prefers to reserve the 100% corner for a branch bank rather than the public realm.

Another example:  approximately $42 million of the improvements to the Lexington Avenue subway station are mitigation for East Side Access and for the extension of the 7 line to Hudson Yards and are already obligations of the MTA and the City.  These are much needed improvements but if they are part of the bonus, One Vanderbilt gains 2.5 FAR of density without corresponding density ameliorating amenities for the community.

One more example:  Community Board Six has recommended that the existing, but long closed, entrance to the subway at the lobby recess of the Mobil Building be reopened by the MTA rather than building new stairs obstructing the 42 Street sidewalk.  This is a requested bonus of nearly half an FAR for a public benefit that is marginal at best and perhaps a disbenefit.

Also, One Vanderbilt should not be relieved of the usual requirement to provide a major improvement to the pedestrian circulation network for the privilege of remotely transferring development rights from the Bowery Savings Bank.  The public purpose of permitting the transfer is to benefit the landmark and the Terminal City complex of which it is a part, not only to compensate its owner.

A detailed analysis was provided to the subcommittee.  By its calculus One Vanderbilt would earn approximately 6.0 FAR less.  This would either leave the building a bit smaller, at 24.0 FAR, or require it to provide additional improvements to the public realm.  Either alternative would be in the public’s interest.

Thank you for the opportunity to be heard.

John West

Mr. West is a member of Manhattan Community Board Six, the MultiBoard Task Force, and the City Club of New York.

One thought on “Letter To The Editor: Shortcomings of the One Vanderbilt Proposal

  1. Although the above shortcomings listed by John West are very important, the most vital shortcoming of One Vanderbilt is the dull/lackluster architectural design. At street level, the proposed design is okay, but the top of the structure lacks imagination. Considering this structure will be higher than the Empire State Building (ESB), one would expect the architectural design to compliment the ESB but unfortunately, it does not. The proposed design of One Vanderbilt (especially the top of the tower) will contribute nothing to the City skyline; in fact, it will diminish the dynamics of what our City skyline represents.

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