New MoMA tower, reduced by 200 feet, approved

Hines Interests’ proposed tower at 53 West 53rd Street. Image: Ateliers Jean Nouvel.

Commission expressed doubts about whether Jean Nouvel-designed tower should equal Empire State Building. On September 9, 2009, the City Planning Commission approved a modified version of Hines Interests’ proposal to build an 85-story, 1,250-foot tall mixed-used building, which would reach the Empire State Building’s height below its antenna, adjacent to the Museum of Modern Art complex at 53 West 53rd Street in Midtown, Manhattan. The 19,615 sq.ft. through-block site is located in the Special Midtown District, and portions of its zoning lot are within four zoning districts: the C5-2.5, C5-3, C5-P, and C6-6 districts. The MoMA complex, the landmarked St. Thomas Church, the American Folk Art Museum, and the Museum Tower condominiums are all located on the project’s zoning lot.

Hines’ proposal called for a 658,306 sq.ft. tower that would include museum, hotel, and residential uses. MoMA would create a 51,949 sq.ft. gallery and exhibition space on the second through fifth floor that would connect internally to its neighboring building. A hotel would occupy floors eight through 17, providing 147,945 sq.ft. of space for approximately 167 rooms, and floors 19 through 81 would provide 458,412 sq.ft. of residential space. The hotel’s lobby would occupy the ground floor, and it would use the cellar-space as a restaurant. Hines would build a residential entrance on West 54th Street.

Hines requested special permits to transfer 136,000 sq.ft. of unused floor area from the landmarked University Club located at the corner of West 54th Street and Fifth Avenue and 275,000 sq.ft. of floor area from St. Thomas Church, and for waivers to height and setback requirements. The transfers required Landmarks’ approval of continuing maintenance plans for the University Club and St. Thomas Church, which Hines obtained in 2008. 5 CityLand 76 (June 15, 2008).

At the Commission’s July 22, 2009 public hearing, the project’s architect, Jean Nouvel, stated that his ambition was to create a “new landmark for the City.” Residents and elected officials speaking in opposition expressed concerns about the tower’s overall size and its impact on the neighborhood. Assembly Member Richard N. Gottfried testified that permitting the tower on a mid-block location violated the basic principles of “good urban planning.” He said the University Club and St. Thomas Church were not in danger of deterioration and that it was wrong for either landmark to finance its operations by transferring floor area to Hines and imposing the burden of the proposed tower on its neighbors.

The Commission’s approval modified the proposal by reducing the tower’s proposed height by 200 feet. The Commission noted that the tower’s tapered and sculpted design would be a “strong” addition to the City’s architecture, and that the project would help fund and maintain two landmarks while also providing expanded gallery space for MoMA. The Commission stated, however, that Hines did not make a convincing argument that the tower’s top merited reaching the Empire State Building’s “iconic spire.” It pointed out that the tower’s modified height would be more appropriate for the Midtown skyline and area surrounding the site. The Commission also noted that Hines must return for certification that the project’s revised design complies with the approved modifications.

The City Council is expected to vote on the proposal at its meeting scheduled for October 14, 2009.

ULURP Process
Lead Agency: CPC, FEIS
Comm.Bd.: MN 5,Den’d, 30-9-1
Boro.Pres.: App’d
CPC: App’d, 9-0-2
Council: Pending

CPC: 53 West 53rd Street/MoMA (C 090431 ZSM – spec. perm.); (C 090432 ZSM – spec. perm.) (Sept. 9, 2009).

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