The Nouvel Tower at MoMA

A new tower dubbed Tower Verre is being planned in Midtown Manhattan adjacent to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Developed by Gerald Hines, an international real estate developer, and designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Jean Nouvel, the proposed skyscraper is expected to incorporate residential units, hotel space and additional exhibit space for MoMA. Developer Gerald D. Hines claims “Nouvel’s exciting concept has the potential to become an international architectural design icon.”

Hines purchased the 17,000 square-foot lot, at 53 West 53rd Street between 53rd and 54th Streets, from MoMA for $125 million in 2007. The lot was once home to the City Athletic Club. As described in the original 2007 press release, Hines envisioned a 75-story mixed-use building with a 100-room seven-star hotel, 120 luxury apartment units, and an additional 50,000 square feet of MoMA exhibit space on the 2nd through 5th floors. Since 2007, more recent descriptions have quoted the tower at 82 stories.

Nicolai Ouroussoff, the New York Times architecture critic, has said the building will be “the most exhilarating addition to the skyline in a generation.” While many in the architecture community have commended the design of the new building, many residents and elected officials are concerned with its size and scale, which was slated to rise 1,250 feet. Hines has the capability to build a tower just over 1,000 feet as of right (without any approvals), but needs transferred air rights and special permits for his proposed design.

The proposed height and density of the building were contingent on the approval by the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) of a transfer of air rights from two landmarked buildings, the University Club and the Thomas Episcopal Church – both located near the site. In March of 2008, Manhattan’s Community Board 5 (CB 5) voted 21-1 against the transferring of air rights to the new MoMA building from the landmarked buildings. However, CB 5’s vote was only advisory, and in May of 2008, the LPC voted 7-0 to approve the air rights transfer.

The Coalition for Responsible Midtown Development, comprised of residents and businesses, continues to protest the proposed tower’s height and bulk and the shadows that it will cast over the area and MoMA’s sculpture garden. The group charges that the tower will turn the W. 54th into a canyon lacking light and air and asserts that the method used to sell air rights to the tower abuses zoning laws and distorts the intent of landmarking provisions.

State Senator Liz Krueger (D-26th District) has said she is opposed to the building because it is “grossly out of scale” with the neighborhood. Other public officials – such as City Council Member Daniel Garodnick (D-4th District) and State Assembly Member Richard Gottfried (D-75th District) – have echoed concerns and community opposition.

Because the tower requires a special permit, the development must win approval through the City’s public review process, the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), and the City’s environmental review process, the City’s Environmental Quality Review (CEQR). ULURP began in May of 2009. Soon after, in mid-June, CB 5 voted against the project.

Following CB5’s disapproval, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer (D) conditionally approved the proposed Nouvel tower in mid-July of 2009. Both CB 5’s and Stringer’s votes are only advisory. In September 2009, the City Planning Commission ordered 200 feet to be removed from the top of the building, changing the proposed height from the original 1,250 feet to 1,050 feet. City Council approved the tower in late October.

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