Tear Down the Chrysler Building?

Anthony Wood

Anthony Wood

Save our skyline. If not, tear down the Chrysler building and demolish the Empire State Building. If action isn’t taken these stars of the New York City skyline will be permanently eclipsed. If the public can’t see them, why preserve them? Even the preservation resistant Real Estate Board of New York would likely gasp at the notion of demolishing these two iconic New York landmarks. “The view of the New York skyline is nationally and internally renowned,” so stated Judge Richard McGill in a ruling against a Weehawken project that would have blocked it. The presence in the skyline of the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building are as quintessentially New York as Central Park or the Statue of Liberty. The public can still feast their eyes on them from multiple vantage points, whether from the approaches to New York City or from its sidewalks. How much longer will that be the case?

Mayor de Blasio’s recently announced plans to encourage a 65-story tower directly west of Grand Central Terminal, soaring some 150 feet above the Chrysler Building, is just the latest misguided effort that will ultimately steal from New Yorkers the familiar sight of these cherished landmarks. The city just dodged a bullet when Vornado decided not to go forward with its approved tower for 15 Penn Plaza, which would have seriously encroached on the Empire State Building. New York was not so lucky with the building of Extell’s One 57 and the construction of 217 West 57th Street (the Nordstrom Tower). The blotting out of key elements of the historic skyline is happening here and now.

Can one put a dollar figure on the loss of New York’s skyline? Can one even fully document the impact of the loss of such a world-class amenity? No—but it is undeniable that New Yorkers will lose something they love and value: public views of the icons they treasure. Clearly the skyline should change over time. That change, however, does not have to lead to the wanton destruction of its present glory. There was another moment in New York’s history when it faced the loss of something truly special whose value was equally hard to quantify yet New York figured out a way to save it.

Over 50 years ago New York City was losing its beloved landmarks (Pennsylvania Station, the Brokaw Mansion, the Savoy-Plaza being only a few on that long list) and facing the bleak prospect of losing even more. Finally after decades of civic advocacy, creative thinking, and painful losses, there was enough political will to create our Landmarks Law. Not intended to save every threatened landmark but to create a system to ensure none were lost that could be saved, that law has done a magnificent job giving the city a public process to help shape the future of the city. Now we need to create a process to allow the city to “curate” its skyline.

As a city, we have demonstrated that we can take action to save the things we love. The loss of our skyline is not inevitable. Last December, architectural critic Michael Kimmelman wrote: “The next mayor also should explore ‘view corridors,’ vistas that, like landmarks, New Yorkers prize and want to protect. London regulates views. New York already limits signs facing into parks. Does the skyline merit similar protection? “ At the least he suggests, “We need a healthier conversation about urban priorities.” As more and more new mega-buildings move off the drawing board and into construction, the chances of having that conversation while it can make a difference are dimming.

In the past New York had strong dedicated civic voices, good government groups and city beautiful advocates, who would lead such a conversation. Aesthetic concerns are perhaps even more important today as policy makers seem convinced that the only way to grow New York is to cannibalize it. Under the mistaken notion that mega-skyscrapers for the mega-rich in midtown Manhattan meaningfully contribute to population density or affordable housing, the reality that New York City is a five borough town with a city-wide infrastructure capable of facilitating new centers of dense development, has been lost on policy makers. If the threat of LG’s new corporate headquarters violating the tree-line defining historic cultural landscape of the Palisades can justly outraged citizens, elected officials, the World Monuments Fund and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, shouldn’t the impending loss of New York’s historic skyline deserve equal attention?

New York has a rich tradition of its citizens rescuing the city from misguided public servants and misdirected private interests. In the ultimately successfully 1939 battle against Robert Moses and the proposed Brooklyn Battery Bridge project which would have marred the tip of Manhattan forever, Albert S. Bard (who would become the grandfather of New York’s Landmarks Law) wrote Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, “Can feeble little folk like me save the city from a serious blunder? I don’t know. It is certainly uphill work.”

It is still uphill work and time is running out. Hope remains that again “feeble little folk,” can save New York from a serious blunder. The choice is not freezing our skyline or leaving its fate totally in the hands of the next developer who successfully piles up enough air rights to outdo the latest mega-tower. There is a middle path—one that makes sure the city uses the tools it has and obtains the ones it needs to appropriately regulate significant view corridors as it regulates so many other priceless civic attributes.

The choice is ours: we can either chose the future skyline we want for New York or live with the one being forced on us by others. Building by building that choice is being made for us. We can see the future and it isn’t pretty. In 1965 New Yorkers demonstrated the political will to create a system to save our landmarks. In 2014 can we find the political will to do the same to save our skyline?

Anthony C. Wood is the author of Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect a City’s Landmarks

10 thoughts on “Tear Down the Chrysler Building?

  1. If it wasn’t for the huge property tax abatements on mega high-rises, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. One57, for example, gets a 94% abatement, making the Land Rent into a privately collected bonus for the developer, who did nothing to earn it. Same with the other 4 mega high-rises going up now. See more here: http://www.opednews.com/articles/Fairness-Sustainability–by-Scott-Baker-Community_Fairness_GROWTH-DEVELOPMENT_Georgism-140210-926.html

  2. As always, Tony Wood has hit the nail on the head.

    As a dreamy child from a suburb of Detroit, I was brought to New York City at age 12 on a special trip. It was love at first sight, and the highlights were the Statue of Liberty, the Stock Exchange and the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings. It is what brought me back here — that the skyline viewed from the Circle Line.

    When the Vornado Tower (15 Penn Plaza) was approved, it seemed be an inconsolable act by our political officials. How could structures even be contemplated that demeaned what was for so many years the world’s tallest tower and remains today the central icon of our city. I am beginning to think I have outlived by time. Is that sense of wonder I felt and still feel about New York lost on everyone under 60 (or in my case 75)?

    Some may say that even higher towers will carry with them their own wonder for the younger generations. Perhaps so, but I doubt it. And in any case, we will have lost much of our heritage. We will have become just another Hong Kong or Shanghai — mighty cities but with little heart.

    Tony Wood is so right on! But then not? He has been in the vanguard of trying to preserve New York for years, The piece he has just written keeps him there.

    Al Butzel

  3. ‘ Who Designed New York’s Beloved Chrysler Building ? ‘ …………… ….. I realize is self-serving,… of course …but it is my very favorable response to Mr. Wood’s very clear reasoning about the importance the New York skyline, & landmarks, & planning, & the past, & of course, the future.

    Benedict Curatolo

  4. I wonder how this new kind of regulations called “skyline landmarks protection” could legally be accomplished under the current system of private property ownership, where the government would have to pay if it becomes too confiscatory. If the zoning permits it and it is not in a historic district, how do you tell the developer that she/he cannot build to the maximum since it will block the view from my window? The new 85 story Four Seasons Hotel next to the Woolworth Building blocks the view from the west and the Gehry New York Building blocks the view from the east. The zoning laws since 1916 and the Landmarks Laws do not include this kind of “scenic easement”. It is something that people could think about, but remember if the regulations becomes so restrictive it is no longer a regulation, but a taking— which must be compensated by the taxpayers.

  5. While we’re at it, why not tear down the El Dorado and Majestic, two of the twin-towered apartment buildings that make up the iconic Central Park West skyline that seems to appear on every real-estate brochure? A few years ago, Landmark West produced a rendering of what this skyline might look like if developers used the kinds of as-of-right and special-permit scenarios available to them – it wasn’t pretty, and it certainly didn’t look like New York. To Tony Wood’s point (no relation, by the way), New Yorkers have a track record of coming up with creative planning and preservation tools to help shape the kind of city we want to live in. If New York is going to compete with Hong Kong and Shanghai – and not just become exactly like them – now is the time we need those creative tools most.

  6. Let me start with a response to Rick Landman that will provide a segway to my core point: The ownership of the land in the first place is a taking by a private individual of something that is public. Not to say that some people invested in property in good faith, because it is the only thing that increases in value over the long term without actual investment by the owner. (The way to deal with that is a separate discussion, and is actually rather simple.)

    However, that brings us to the idea that the city should own the value of the land within its borders. The value of the land is not the value of the dirt under its surface. The value of land lies in location. One component of location value is this very view that is being discussed in the original article. Other components include access to infrastructure (like roads and subways) and public spaces (like parks) and even to other buildings that offer jobs, workers, and consumable goods. If the city owned the value it generated in being the mediator of land usage and curator of public spaces and infrastructure, it would have every incentive to maximize the value of that land, balancing the needs for economic growth and beautiful views based on the desires of the population to bid up those locations that provide the things they want and need.

  7. All very interesting ideas,but as lawyers aren’t we supposed to also look at the 5th Amendment of the US Constitution that guarantees private property ownership and the right of the individual to be compensated in the property right is taken for a public purpose? In the Euclid decision the USSC permitted zoning regulations if they were not confiscatory and later created limited regulations for landmarking.

    NYC has its entire land use laws based on an as-is system of regulations, ie. Zoning Resolution and Building Codes, etc. and they permit the maximum legal bulk to be built unless they are in a landmarked district; regardless if they change the skyline. But no one is talking about demolishing any of these landmarks, just their views from certain perspectives.

    Remember when Trinity Church was the tallest building around? I you want to change the system, it will involve many legal changes including getting the USSC to agree with the changes.

  8. With respect to Mr Butzel and others, you may doubt it all you want, but as a member of the younger generation, I feel the same awe and wonder contemplating the magnificent future towers of 57th street or Hudson Yards as I do when looking at the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings, and I cannot wait to see them take their rightful places on the skyline.

    The simple truth is this. Every new generation will add to the heritage and beauty of New York in its own way, keeping alive the spirit of ambition and imagination that makes things such as the Empire State Building possible. According to the tenets of modern preservationism, which seem to be largely predicated upon knee-jerk, anti-corporate reaction, it should be the most hated building in the city. The beautiful old Waldorf Astoria was demolished to make way for it. It towers unapologetically over its surroundings, triumphing in its arrogance and paying absolutely no heed to any sense of the context of the low-slung area in which it sits. It was an act of pure, arrogant speculation that stood largely empty upon completion. In short, a boondoggle. And yet it is beloved. Part of that has to do with its serendipitous location in the middle of the island. Part of that has to do with its magical observatory that makes it an icon the public can interact with in a more personal way. Part of it has to do with its storied on screen persona. But more than anything else, it is because the Empire State Building speaks to the power of human accomplishment. The wonder that every child feels in looking at it stems from the astonishing realization that this did now grow out of the ground. Human beings made it. And that same sense of wonder shall flow from these new towers you so despise. My children shall grow up knowing a New York where 111 W 57, the Nordstrom Tower and Tower Verre are as natural to them as the sun, and have as much right to be there as the Empire State Building or the Chrysler Building do.

    Frankly, as a member of the younger generation, I find little to like about preservationism as it is now, where seemingly every new building is going to destroy our heritage and cut out the city’s heart and soul. Such was the reaction to Nouvel’s Tower Verre, a “glass dagger plunged into the heart of our neighborhood,” as one community member put it. Such was the reaction to the closure of Rizzoli’s. The ire was such that you would think the LeFrak family was going to have a book bonfire in the middle of 57th street. Personally I can’t wait to see what rises on that site. I hope it is magnificent.

    To close: if we do not allow for change, even change we find uncomfortable (especially change we find uncomfortable) if we do not allow what is new now to become a cherished landmark, if we do not allow for the possibility that what is new can add to the heritage rather than subtract from it, we are not preserving New York. We are sacking it. One of the angry community members at the Tower Verre hearing stated that his children would ask him why the neighborhood was destroyed for the tower. If preservation continues on its current course, I think future children will look at the great landmarks of the past less with pride that with a wistful, mournful sorrow and ask why we build like that anymore. If ever preservation should reach that point, then I agree with the author. We should tear down the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building, symbols of great human accomplishment, and rebuild them someplace more deserving, someplace where the spirit of great building accomplishment still thrives.

    Someplace like Hong Kong.

    Take care, preservationists, that your movement does not become the misguided, misdirected interest the city needs saving from.

  9. I suspect the title will be more accurate than the author expects. All of NYC’s landmarks rules hinge on the Supreme Court decision about Grand Central Terminal. As the court has been steadily marching more and more in a pro-business direction I project that ten or fifteen years from now they will overturn (or so drastically modify) that deciscion that tearing down “iconic” buildings will be the easiest way to get a large building plot.

  10. I know that people like Mr Wood would like to see NYC turned into a museum to itself. It’s precisely for that reason that opinions of people like him should be ignored. If he was around and in a position of influence when the buildings he’s writing about were build, it’s likely the would not have been.

    If the “classic” towers are being eclipsed in the skyline, it’s because what will be the future classic towers are doing so. To prevent them for the silly reason of preserving the sight lines to the older buildings, would have the effect of unnecessarily impeding the development of newer, bigger, more commercially useful buildings that will drive the economy of the future. In point of fact, many of the classic towers are functionally obsolete, and server mainly as class B/C office space and as tourist attractions.

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