Proposed MoMA skyscraper generates opposition

Jean Nouvel-designed tower requires air rights transfer from two nearby landmarks. The University Club, located on the corner of West 54th Street and Fifth Avenue, and St. Thomas Church, located at West 53rd Street and Fifth Avenue, sought Landmarks’ approval for the sale of their developable air rights to Hines Realty. The sale would allow Hines to construct a 75-story mixed-use tower in the vacant mid-block lot adjacent to the Museum of Modern Art. The tower would house MoMA galleries, a restaurant, a hotel, and residential apartments.

St. Thomas argued that proceeds from the sale would go towards an ongoing stained-glass restoration project, while the University Club claimed that the sale would help mitigate costs related to structural damage in its basement and ground floor.

Jean Nouvel testified that the tower would be consistent with the City’s history of skyscrapers and bring energy to the neighborhood, creating a sense of lightness to the existing, low-lying MoMA building. Hines representatives echoed Nouvel’s testimony by providing renderings that they claimed showed that the proposed tower would not cast shadows on neighboring landmarks.

A representative of Council Member Daniel Garodnick expressed concern that the project would set a negative precedent, “opening the door to large-scale mid-block development.” A representative of State Senator Liz Krueger testified against the sale as well, claiming that the problems stemming from the proposed tower outweighed the benefits conferred to the two landmarks. Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer’s representative urged Landmarks to “seriously consider the requirement that the new tower and the landmark buildings have a harmonious relationship.” Howard Mendes of Manhattan Community Board 5 called the tower’s site an inappropriate mid-block location, and stated that the tower was not needed because MoMA already owned property that it could use as exhibition space.

Nadezhda Williams of the Historic Districts Council questioned the impact that the development would have on other nearby landmarks, such as the Rockefeller Mansion and the Lehman House, and stated that the tower would “eclipse and distract from its neighbors.” Area residents largely opposed the project, expressing concern that it would lead to a heavy increase in pedestrian and traffic congestion. One resident suggested that if the project came to pass, St. Thomas Church should be renamed “St. Judas.”

The Municipal Art Society’s Lisa Kersavage, however, called the proposed tower “handsome,” and found that it would not negatively affect St. Thomas or the University Club. Several other speakers welcomed the addition of an architecturally significant building to the neighborhood, with some claiming that the tower would itself become a landmark in time. One resident testified that the project “will create a new standard of architecture,” while another called the project’s proposed tower “a significant addition to midtown Manhattan.”

Testimony having extended long past the meeting’s scheduled ending time, Chair Robert B. Tierney closed the hearing without taking action or hearing comments from commissioners. A date for the continued public meeting has not yet been set.

LPC: St. Thomas Church and Parish House, 678 Fifth Ave., Manhattan (COFA# 08-6392) (Apr. 8, 2008); The University Club, 1 West 54th St., Manhattan (COFA# 08-6382) (Apr. 8, 2008).

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