Volume 80, Number 15 | September 9 - 15, 2010
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Talking Point

Abracadabra! Mike and Council’s Empire vanishing act

By Daniel Meltzer

“You can’t see it from here.”

Barring a New York miracle (like the Mets winning the World Series), this could be true in just a few short years.

“Here” would be due west. “Here” would be Chelsea, the on ramp to the Lincoln Tunnel for everyone coming to Manhattan from I-80, from the Turnpike, from all points west or south. “Here” would be I-95 after you make that turn and head for the tunnel or the G.W. Bridge from points north, and there it is in front of you, big and beautiful, telling you that you have arrived at what they call the greatest city in the world. For me, it says that I am almost home, from my teaching gig at Penn State, from visiting friends or family in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, D.C., Maryland or Virginia.

“It” would be the Empire State Building, once the tallest building in the world, icon not just of the city but of the state for which it is named, if not the nation, a testament to foresight, confidence and determination during one of our darkest periods, with unobstructed, 360-degree exposure since the day it was completed in 1931, two years after the crash. 

Along with the Chrysler Building, its one-year senior (and a bit shorter) companion eight blocks north and three to the east, this great landmark defines our distinct skyline, recognized the world over. The two tallest buildings in Midtown are architectural masterpieces, towering majestically over the belly of the beast itself. King Kong, Fay Wray: Where would they have been without it?

With one lonely holdout, the City Council, under pressure from Mayor Mike (Bigger Is ALWAYS Better) Bloomberg, overwhelmingly approved last month Vornado Realty Trust’s proposed new tower — at twice the height normally permitted by zoning regulations — for the current site of the old Pennsylvania Hotel at Seventh Ave. and W. 33rd St. The new, undistinguished office tower would stand, like an ugly prom date, directly beside, and be just a few feet shorter than, the Empire State Building itself, which would be invisible behind it (except for its antenna) from the west.

Vornado — don’t they make fans? Quick and silent as one of their best models, if they still do, Vornado Realty Trust blew this one through the City Council in a quick, hot gust in the dead of August, and somehow got all the approvals it needed from the pliable agencies concerned, by promising some improvements to Penn Station entryways, as if the M.T.A. doesn’t have its own deep pockets. 

Bluntly put, the new building, if permitted to be built, will vandalize, with the blessings of the Council and the bureaucracy, one of our greatest treasures, our skyline.

“Realty Trust.” Is there something not so vaguely oxymoronic about that? I write this on a day when a New York Times report describes how desperate, struggling New York City landlords have now been forced to hire private detectives to catch scoundrel low-rent tenants who may be spending too much time away from their apartments — following them, raiding their trash for telltale electric and phone bills, or out-of-town menus. How desperate can these landlords be if they can afford all that surveillance to catch the lady with the cabin in the woods? “Realty Trust.” Really.

The new Midtown tower is considered a done deal, slipped through during the dog days of our hottest summer on record. Skylines don’t get landmarked, unfortunately. Maybe they should. But then you would have to get the ear of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, hardly an adversary of newer, bigger construction anywhere the great rock foundation of Manhattan will support it.

I bet a lot of people here will really be fuming once they’ve heard about this. Perhaps they’re still away at their Hamptons shares or at their mountaintop cabins Upstate. 

Here’s the challenge: If we couldn’t get a persuasive showing (or support from our media) to stop two pointless, endless, treasury-busting, body-bagging wars, can we round up enough earnest souls to save our skyline? 

Save our Skyline — S.O.S. There, I’ve given you the campaign button. Go for it.

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