Cordoba House isn’t the only planned Manhattan building raising hackles because it’s “too close” to something. Yesterday, the New York City Council held a hearing on plans for 15 Penn Plaza, a proposed 1,216-foot skyscraper that Vornado Realty Trust hopes to build across Seventh Avenue from Penn Station. Opponents worry that the tower will interfere with views of the only slightly taller (1,250 feet) Empire State Building, located approximately 1.5 blocks to the east. That building’s owners are leading a public campaign to block the new development, including a full-page ad in Monday’s New York Times.
The Empire State Building has essentially stood alone over its 79 years, making it a rarity among tall Manhattan buildings. It was constructed during a building boom that led to a glut of Manhattan office space while the economy was mired in the Depression; after its completion, high-rise construction in New York came to a near-standstill for 20 years. By the time demand caught up with supply in the 1950s, there was little interest in building tall near the Empire State Building. Desired office locations in Manhattan had shifted northward—running roughly from Third to Seventh Avenue, and from 40th Street to Central Park. Most of this area is within walking distance of Grand Central Terminal, which handles 150,000 daily passengers from suburbs north of Manhattan.
Unfortunately, Penn Station—where commuters from New Jersey and Long Island arrive, and which handles about three times GCT’s traffic—lies south of this zone, in an area with relatively limited office development. Over 70 percent of Midtown office workers can walk to work from Grand Central; only 36 percent can do so from Penn Station. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is addressing this problem with the East Side Access project, which will add a new rail terminal for Long Island commuters 140 feet beneath Grand Central. The $8.1 billion project, to open in 2016, will cut commute times by up to 40 minutes. But even then, half of Long Island trains (and all New Jersey trains) will go to Penn Station. So the 15 Penn Plaza project—which would put one of Manhattan’s largest office buildings across the street from Manhattan’s busiest transit terminal—makes a lot of sense.
What is more important: preserving views of the Empire State Building from afar or giving potentially many thousands of commuters more direct access to their workplaces? That’s what the dispute comes down to.