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Behemoth Packs 2.83 Million Square Feet of Blight: Commentary

An architectural rendering of 15 Penn Plaza. The tower tapers only slightly as it rises about 1,200 feet. Source: Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects via Bloomberg
An architectural rendering of 15 Penn Plaza. The tower tapers only slightly as it rises about 1,200 feet. Source: Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects via Bloomberg

Nov. 9 (Bloomberg) -- A behemoth office tower that may rise opposite Pennsylvania Station would deface New York City’s skyline and cast a pall over surrounding streets already shortchanged on light and air.

Vornado Realty Trust’s 15 Penn Plaza will stack as much as 2.83 million square feet on a site that was zoned to accommodate just 1.6 million square feet.

The tower tapers only slightly as it rises about 1,200 feet -- the height of the Empire State Building -- dwarfing two massive cookie-cutter residential towers to the south that are a sad legacy of Manhattan’s recent housing boom.

Architect Rafael Pelli, of Manhattan-based Pelli Clarke Pelli, carved slit-like corner recesses to slim 15 Penn’s glassy bulk, but this overweight monster appears to be bursting at its seams.

Stroll along the jammed sidewalks of West 32nd Street or West 33rd, east of Seventh Avenue, breathing in the diesel exhaust of idling trucks and buses. The blank walls of a multilevel retail mall or the blank wall of several massive trading floors -- depending on the tenant mix -- will line half the length of the block.

Scoops, Freebies

How did this thing get so huge?

Vornado controls the entire block, and so it has made the tower bigger by scooping up unused zoning square footage from the site of the careworn Manhattan Mall that occupies the Sixth Avenue side, and piled it onto the tower site.

In addition, the city has allowed a further free 270,000 square feet of development rights.

Should the tower be built -- that depends on getting enough tenants to sign on in advance -- the rest of us would be gifted with somewhat enlarged and less dingy subway stairs, among several modest transit improvements for which officials granted Vornado 474,000 additional square feet.

That’s the equivalent of stacking a good-sized office tower atop an already massive one.

There’s no space for what could be a real amenity on this unpleasant street: a plaza. Instead, we get minor widening of some of the city’s most overcrowded sidewalks.

High Ceilings

For all its great height, 15 Penn contains only 67 stories. Some are tall to accommodate trading floors as large as 70,000 square feet at the base and even office floors are 14 feet apart (compared with the old standard of 11.5).

The hoped-for financial-industry tenants (in palmier days Merrill Lynch) want to pack staffers tightly into large floors ranging up to 34,000 square feet. High ceilings are essential to avoid claustrophobia.

That’s good for tenants, but a super-tall building owes the skyline an expression of New York City’s optimism and energy. A soaring landmark has cash value, too, though Vornado, large and experienced as it is, can’t seem to calculate it.

Vornado justified the great size of an earlier incarnation of the tower because it would contribute millions to overhaul the grim overcrowded maze that is Penn Station. Several other similarly over-scaled developments proposed nearby make the same argument. However, the Penn project remains in limbo.

Hudson River Tunnel

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s absurd cancellation of the Hudson River tunnel may well repel investment on both sides of the river, as it makes long-term congestion appear unsolvable.

So chances are commuters will fight their way through even larger Penn Station crowds or into the eternally embarrassing Madison Square Garden sports arena.

Latent in Pelli’s design is a better tower. If its recesses were deepened and its bulk slimmed it could come alive on the skyline.

A no-aspiration mood has prevailed around Penn Station since its tragic 1960s rebuilding. What should be a great neighborhood has been an also-ran too long.

The 500,000 daily travelers can’t get away from the sordid surroundings fast enough.

The 15 Penn tower is important enough to change that dynamic if Vornado decides to care.

(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: James S. Russell in New York at

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Manuela Hoelterhoff at

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