The Two-Block Problem

Two recent controversies demonstrate that in New York proximity is a very relative matter.

Never mind that in this virulently nasty political season, Park51, the proposed cultural center intended to “to build trust and understanding between the Muslim World and the United States,” has been demonized as the Ground Zero Mosque. Never mind that a multifaith attempt to heal the wounds left by 9/11 has been characterized as a Muslim-extremist victory dance on the smoking ruins of the World Trade Center. When yahoos running to represent, say, the second congressional district of North Carolina campaign on the no-mosque platform, they reveal not just a disregard for the Constitution they claim to champion but a complete ignorance about the nature of both Manhattan and the World Trade Center site itself.

As Jon Stewart has now pointed out, the proposed site of Park51 is located on a dull retail stretch two blocks north of the former World Trade Center, in a pair of buildings that once housed a Burlington Coat Factory. The no-mosque crowd generally shrugs off the two blocks, arguing that it’s all “hallowed ground.” There is, apparently, a penumbra of sanctity spreading outward from the spot where the Twin Towers once stood, but where its boundaries are no one can say. “I think Congress has the ability to declare the area a national battlefield memorial,” the former House Speaker Newt Gingrich recently argued. The area? Meaning what? All of Lower Manhattan? Should we turn Battery Park City, where plenty of debris fell on 9/11, into a battlefield memorial? How about Wall Street?

The Buffalo real estate developer Carl Paladino, currently running for governor of New York, promised in a campaign ad that he’d use the power of eminent domain to stop the mosque and build a war memorial on Park Place instead. He later backed away from that concept in a CNN interview and instead proposed putting “a restrictive covenant on the property and all of the property in the Ground Zero site.” When Rick Sanchez asked what he meant by “Ground Zero,” Paladino replied, “Ground Zero for me is the extended site over which the dust cloud containing human remains traveled.” Sanchez then pointed out the dust cloud stretched all the way to Weehawken. So is New Jersey now considered hallowed ground?

I’d love to sit down with some Tea Party types and explain a basic urban fact: While two blocks may seem like nothing in your neck of the woods, Manhattan possesses a different kind of geography. Although Manhattan blocks don’t represent a great physical distance—roughly 260 feet between streets and 600 feet between avenues—they can be as dense as whole towns. Maybe denser. One neighborhood can transform into another in the space of a block. Diamond merchants here, Rockettes there. Bangladeshis here, Tokyo expats there. Hallowed ground here, not-so-hallowed ground there.

But what really bugs me is that the pols who are calling for restrictions on what can be built near the former World Trade Center have conveniently overlooked the fact that in addition to the memorial, the site will eventually contain ten million square feet of office space, 550,000 square feet of retail, a transit hub, and maybe a performing-
arts center. Yes, it is hallowed ground, but it’s not a shrine. Yes, horrible things happened right there, but Ground Zero will someday be filled with ordinary New Yorkers—including Muslims—going about their daily business.

Mayor Bloomberg has been wonderfully eloquent on Park51. In August he said that we “recognize that part of being a New Yorker is living with your neighbors in mutual respect and tolerance.” Bloomberg’s remarks were clearly heartfelt, but he might also have recalled a prior mess. In 2005, a respected Soho arts organization, the Drawing Center, was ejected from the WTC’s planned cultural space because of fears it might exhibit art that would, in then Governor George Pataki’s words, “denigrate America.” This didn’t bode well for the site’s future urbanity. Now it seems reasonable to ask what will happen if every leasing deal on the site is subject to the scrutiny being given Park51? We’re talking about an institution likened by its backers to the 92nd Street Y, a Jewish cultural center primarily known for secular lectures and concerts. Will other enterprises involving Muslims be equally controversial? Could Emirates Airlines open an office at the new World Trade Center? Should Barneys, the fashion store that is currently owned by Dubai World, be permitted in the mall? Will Pakistanis be permitted to run the newsstands? Whither the falafel vendors?

And where were those out-of-town politicians and caterwauling yahoos when another sacrosanct piece of New York was threatened? Our most beloved icon, the Empire State Building, is being menaced by a development a mere two blocks away. (“It stabs hearts,” as Sarah Palin might tweet.) In late August, when nothing of significance customarily happens, New York’s City Council voted 47 to 1 to approve a developer’s plans for a 1,216-foot tower that would stand a scant two blocks west of the 1,250-foot-tall Empire State Building (which actually tops out at 1,454 feet if you count the zeppelin-mooring mast). To rally opposition
to the plan, the owners of the Empire State Building, Malkin Holdings, distributed an alarming rendering in which a chubby Pelli Clarke Pelli–designed glass tower nearly eclipsed the most enduring symbol of New York’s skyline. The Malkins argued, unsuccessfully, for a buffer zone one-third of a mile (roughly seven blocks) around their tower.

For its part, the developer of 15 Penn Plaza, Vornado, rationalized in its Environmental Impact Statement that “the skyline and the prominence of the Empire State Building would not be significantly affected because the new building would be shorter … would have a very different, modern design and a simpler tower top, and the two buildings would be approximately 1,000 feet apart, which would further diminish the perceived height of the new building in more distant views.” So in this developer’s view, two avenue-length blocks are plenty.

Well, sort of.

Two blocks would suffice were 15 Penn Plaza built to the size normally permitted by zoning. Instead, Vornado chose to leverage the fact that their site straddles two zoning districts. To build a 1,216-foot-tall tower, instead of the 580-foot tower permitted under existing rules, the developer convinced the city to upzone the neighboring lot (occupied by
a relatively short shopping mall) and allow them to transfer massive quantities of air rights from one site to the other. The proposed skyscraper crowds the Empire State Building in part because Vornado got permission to flaunt the setback regulations that would normally have forced the tower to taper. No one would be calling for a buffer zone if the developers hadn’t felt compelled to game the system.

Why did the same City Council that ordered Jean Nouvel to lop 200 feet off his West 53rd Street tower agree to supersize 15 Penn Plaza? Perhaps because Vornado is one of two developers that are supposed to be helping finance the transformation of the shabby Penn Station into the new Moynihan Station. Air rights and upzoning were among the incentives for that deal. The Penn Plaza project also fits in with the Bloomberg administration’s plan to transform the far West Side of Manhattan into a new central business district with a lot of extra-tall towers jamming the skyline.

Speaking as a New Yorker, pragmatic to a fault, I think of Park51 as just a 13-story building. It conforms to zoning. If it hadn’t been turned into a political football, it would be invisible. Two blocks: no problem. By contrast, 15 Penn Plaza, bulked up on variances and bonuses, is encroaching on a still-standing landmark, the skyscraper that was once the yin to the World Trade Center’s yang. Two blocks: an outrage.

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