MoMA/Hines Development:
Reject Proposal for 1,050 Foot Tower

Testimony before the New York City Council,
Subcommittee on Zoning & Franchises
City Hall
Tuesday, October 6, 2009

I am Assembly Member Richard N. Gottfried. I represent the 75th Assembly District in Manhattan, which includes Chelsea, Hell’s Kitchen, Murray Hill, and parts of the Upper West Side and Midtown, including the area where the MoMA/Hines building at 53 West 53rd Street is proposed.

A building of this magnitude on a mid-block location immediately adjacent to a historic residential neighborhood violates the basic principles of New York City zoning and good urban planning. It should not be allowed.

In order to permit the transfer of development rights to 53 West 53rd Street from the two landmarks, the University Club and St. Thomas Church, the City Planning Commission has approved special permits under §74-711 and §74-79.

St. Thomas Church, an individual landmark in good condition, applied for a special permit under §74-711 to sell all 275,000 square feet of its air rights, arguing that the preservation plan it is currently undertaking satisfies the findings required by the zoning code. If St. Thomas Church wants to upgrade the building, it should do what congregations do, and turn to its members.

The University Club applied for a special permit under §74-79 to sell all 136,000 square feet of its air rights, presenting a preservation plan which also falls short of demonstrating financial need. Neither landmark is in danger of deterioration, or has a stated lack of resources. It is wrong for the church and the University Club to finance their operations by imposing the burden of the MoMA/Hines building on its neighbors.

Community Board 5 reports that both are currently in good condition with ongoing maintenance plans. There is no “burden” that needs to be relieved and no landmark preservation purpose to be served by the air rights sale.

However, there is substantial public burden resulting from the excessive height and density, shadows, traffic, and other impacts the proposed tower will impose on the community. While the Environmental Impact Study asserts no “significant adverse effect” of shadows from the MoMA/Hines tower, that is preposterous.

The building, as originally proposed, would have been 1250 feet high. The City Planning Commission has required that the height be reduced by 200 feet to 1,050 feet. However, the proposed tower remains far too tall – indeed, as tall as the Chrysler Building, , making it one of the tallest buildings in New York City. Unlike other skyscrapers, the MoMA/Hines site is not on a wide avenue or a wide cross-town street; it is mid-block on a narrow mixed-use side street with its back on a residential street.

A §74-711 permit also required a finding that the building will relate harmoniously to the transferring landmark. Some might claim that because of the distance between the development site and the landmark, the harmoniousness standard was met.

The harmful impact the tower will have on St. Thomas Church and the surrounding area is substantial despite the distance between the tower and the landmark. It is shocking to think that a building of this size can be put up near this landmark church simply because, when standing next to the church, you cannot see the top of the tower without craning your neck. That is not the limit of the adverse impacts. The proposed Tower would dwarf the landmarked CBS Building and would loom above the eight individually landmarked historic buildings on 54tth Street.

With respect to the University Club, the zoning text is clear. There must be a preservation plan that benefits the landmark without adding burden on the community. Fifty-third Street is characterized by low-rise mixed-use development. The MoMA/Hines plan is inconsistent with and degrades this character.

Traffic and pedestrian impacts are important and relevant to the weighing of advantages and disadvantages under Section 74-711, and they should be taken into account under the State Environmental Quality Review Act and the City regulations implementing that statute.

A building of this magnitude will dramatically increase vehicular and pedestrian traffic. If the permits are approved, MoMA/Hines must present a substantial plan for significant mitigation for this increased traffic.

Currently, the MoMA foot patrol and line regulators cannot do enough to moderate the throng of pedestrians that clog the sidewalk, thus preventing residents from easily accessing their homes and others from using the street. With an increase in tourist traffic at MoMA, especially Friday evenings when the museum offers free admission, more queuing should take place inside the building.

The adverse impacts need not be so traumatic. The community has indicated that it would be willing to live with a tower up to the height of the CBS Building – 490 feet. This would provide the developer with much of the FAR it is seeking while also allowing significant financial benefits to flow to St. Thomas and the University Club through the transfers of a portion of their air rights. The return would be a more contextual building: still massive, but no longer overhanging and overwhelming the adjacent neighborhoods.

Not-for-profit organizations and cultural institutions are increasingly trying to make use of their air rights to build residential or commercial towers that undermine landmark, historic district, and zoning regulations. This trend is detrimental to communities and should be resisted by community boards, City agencies, and the City Council.

I urge the Council to reject the proposed 1,050 foot tower.