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Queens Clock Tower, Once the Tallest, Helps a 77-Story Skyscraper Rise Next Door
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is transferring 477,000 square feet of development rights from a new tunnel to Grand Central Terminal, at left, so that a 77-story apartment tower can rise next to a historic clock tower.
Uli Seit for The New York Times

The hands have not moved in decades, and the lights behind them went dark a year ago. But the gargoyles still glower atop the Long Island City clock tower, alongside its castellated turret, copper windows and granite shields.

Fourteen stories is nothing in today’s booming neighborhood, but until 1990, the brown-brick structure at 29-27 Queens Plaza North was the tallest commercial building in Queens. Even still, it transfixes residents of this low-slung borough.

“Since I was a boy, I’ve probably passed by that building thousands of times in my life, like so many people in Queens,” said Jimmy Van Bramer, the local city councilman. “It was a landmark from the very beginning.”

It was hard to miss, standing virtually alone at the mouth of the Queensboro Bridge and the bend in the elevated Flushing and Astoria subway lines. Even as it was hemmed in by larger buildings, the clock tower still stood out.

Now it will be truly overshadowed. A 915-foot skyscraper — the city’s tallest outside Manhattan — is about to sprout on its doorstep. Yet the connection is no coincidence: The clock tower is helping make this 77-story glassy giant possible.

The new 930-unit apartment building, designed by SLCE Architects and described as “Manhattan caliber” by its developers, is relying on land and air rights from the clock tower, as well as another, unexpected source: the Metropolitan Transportation Authority — this despite the reservations of some of the agency’s board members.

Without the deal, the project could reach only 38 stories, shorter than many of the new towers it will now loom over.

When a consortium of developers bought the clock tower and two neighboring plots in November, it hit upon a novel idea to create its Queens colossus. With tight budgets and a mandate to capitalize on its real estate holdings, the transportation authority was happy to oblige.

Last week, the authority’s board approved the transfer of approximately 477,000 square feet of air rights to the developers for just under $56 million. The rights came from an adjacent lot where the agency has dug a hole nearly as deep as the clock tower is tall. Through it runs a tunnel that will bring the Long Island Rail Road into Grand Central Terminal.

“The clock tower once marked Queens as a borough on the rise, and with our new project, we want to give the building the prominence it deserves,” the developers, Property Markets Group and the Hakim Organization, said in a statement.

These were indeed the aspirations driving the Bank of Manhattan when it opened the building 88 years ago. With the arrival of the bridge in 1909 and the expansion of the subways across the East River a decade later, the blocks around Queens Plaza became ripe for development.

It became a hub of business, with concrete factories and limestone banks radiating out from the plaza. Most of them are now gone, having been replaced with soaring glass spires.

Local preservationists had worried time was up for the historic building, but the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission stepped in. Last week, the commission began a public review of a proposal to make the clock tower an official landmark, which would protect it from destruction but still allow construction around it. The proposal, which is supported by the developers and Councilman Van Bramer, is likely to be approved.

The developers plan to keep it as an office building for tech firms, and have also promised to pay for a park of up to 1.25 acres on the land controlled by the transportation authority.

Yet some at the authority thought the developers should have been providing public benefits within their new tower: affordable housing.

The developers are in a race to begin construction by summer so they can qualify for tax breaks without having to include affordable housing. If state lawmakers continue the 421a tax-break program beyond June, builders and housing advocates expect projects within high-demand neighborhoods like Long Island City will be exempted unless affordable units are included.

This put the transportation authority board in the unusual position of wrestling with housing policy.

“Myopia is no excuse,” Charles G. Moerdler, a Manhattan lawyer and appointee of the governor to the board, said at a board meeting last week. “Our fiduciary responsibility is to all people of the state, and that includes those who support our governor’s program to provide affordable housing so that New York State remains a state fit for people and fit for living.”

Another worry was that the authority might be worsening its position, rather than strengthening it. “I think we have to be concerned with the crowded subway lines and how all these people are going to be able to get on the subway,” Ira R. Greenberg, head of the Long Island Rail Road Commuters Council, said before the vote.

The agency had actually wrestled with this very issue during the negotiations. The developers had initially wanted to buy 750,000 square feet, so they could build a tower higher than 90 stories.

The challenge for the authority is that if the board insists on affordable housing, most developers will pay less for the air rights, hurting the authority’s bottom line.

Some suburban board members were especially frustrated by what they saw as hypocrisy, since two projects outside the city on agency property were recently obligated to include affordable housing.

Regardless, most of the board members, including the chairman and chief executive, Thomas F. Prendergast, felt their responsibility was to riders, not residents, and they approved the air rights sale. Mr. Prendergast did agree, however, to form a committee to explore the issue so the agency would not have to continue addressing affordable housing on a project-by-project basis.

“There are many who want to tag onto our ship and have us carry their mantra forward,” Mr. Prendergast said at the board meeting. “But when we have an issue with respect to finances, they’re not there with us.”

While Councilman Van Bramer and many in Long Island City wish the transportation authority had decided differently, they have now turned their focus to the appropriate marriage of the bank building and its 915-foot neighbor.

“The new tallest building will be next door to the old tallest building,” said Christian Emanuel, a recent college graduate who grew up going to his father’s office in the clock tower building and led the campaign for landmark status. “They couldn’t be more different, but they will still go together. That’s Queens. We’re diversity.”

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