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NEW YORK CITY-Despite a 44-to-3 vote by the New York City Council further paving the way for construction of a bold new Midtown skyscraper, opponents of the project say they’ll continue to fight. At 1,050 feet in height, the Jean Nouvel-designed 53 West 53rd St. tower, adjacent to the Museum of Modern Art, would provide MoMA around 75,000 square feet of new gallery and support space as well as a hotel and condominiums.

But local residents, and a smattering of political leaders, charge bad planning. They say the tower is far too tall for a mid-block location and it would be better suited on an avenue for all to see, not adjoining other buildings where they say there’s no open space.

“We’re looking at our legal options,” according to Rita Sue Siegel, VP of the West 54th-55th Street Block Association, which opposes the project. She tells GlobeSt.com that she believes the zoning laws were manipulated to benefit the developer. Ultimately, she says she believes that a pro-development Mayor Michael Bloomberg trusts developers to do their projects “right” which in the end, will “make money for the city.”

Another opponent of the project, the Coalition for Responsible Midtown Development’s Justin Peyser, tells GlobeSt.com that developer Hines was abusing the intent of the landmark transfer law. He says the city should exercise its discretion, so the public benefit of preserving landmarks does not overly burden the surrounding neighborhood structures, air, light and open space.

“We’re not a bunch of NIMBYs[Not In My Back Yard]; we live in Midtown, we love architecture,” says Peyser, director of the coalition. “What we’re fighting for, and may continue fighting for if we go to court, is that the building should be contextual, no taller than the tallest buildings in the immediate vicinity.”

A spokesperson at the local community board agreed. However, he and others say they expected the city council to vote the way it voted.

“In essence, the community opposition has to do with a project that’s far too large for that spot,” says the spokesman from Community Board 5 in Midtown. “You can walk past that empty lot in about half a second, and barely realize you’ve even passed it, because it’s so small. For a building as tall as the Empire State Building to go on that site, with no open space around it, is problematic at best,” says CB5 spokesman.

Back in September, the City Planning Commission reduced the height of the MoMA/Hines tower from 1,250 to 1,050 feet. Although as currently planned, the tower does not reach the heights of the Empire State Building, if built, its peak would rival another icon, the Chrysler building’s piercing tip in the Midtown skyline profile.

In a Sept. 9 planning commission report, the commission said modifying the building height to 1,050 feet was appropriate in consideration of both the building’s relationship to the Midtown Manhattan skyline and the area surrounding the development site. Of the modification, the report noted “this reduced height is approximately what could be built as-of-right under existing zoning.”

The report also called the project’s design exemplary, noting that with its tapered, sculpted form, unique diagrid structure and curtain wall, and overall design inegenuity, would be a strong addition to the city and its architecture.

In a May 2008 Architect Newspaper report, Nouvel defended his design, saying “the impact of the building is less strong because the building is very narrow.” He stressed that his wish is to “enrich this neighborhood, to open the sky, and also to create a kind of signal you can read in the skyline of the city and you can say, the MOMA is here.”

Even so, opponents say the 82-story tower will overwhelm landmark buildings surrounding the structure, like the CBS Building, Rockefeller Apartments and the landmarked townhouses at 5, 7, 9, 11 and 15 W. 54 St.

And, in his testimony before the City Council on Oct. 6, Assemblyman Richard N Gottfried, who represents the area in Albany, went further, saying “a building of this magnitude on a mid-block location immediately adjacent to a historic residential neighborhood violates the basic principles of New York City zoning and good urban planning.

For its part, Hines has remained mum on details, including perhaps the ever more pressing questions of how and who might provide financing should the project get final green lighting. Instead, the Houston-based company acknowledges that the original plans were modified, the size of the hotel has been reduced and plans for a loading dock have been removed.

Hines, owners of New York City properties like 600 Lexington Ave., One Jackson Square and 140 Broadway, says in a statement that with the issuance of the special permit, the company “would like to acknowledge the significant support the project has received from MoMA and the public agencies involved in this process including the New York City Department of Planning with which Hines has had a longstanding and successful relationship.” In a statement from MoMA, the City Council’s approval is called “an important milestone. Jean Nouvel’s design for the 75-story tower will contribute significantly to the city’s architectural heritage, and the 39,500 square feet of additional gallery space that it will provide for MoMA will enable the Museum to show even more of its collection to the public.”

Meanwhile, a source familiar with the planning commission tells GlobeSt.com that before obtaining a building permit for the MoMA project, Hines would need to come back before the commission. The developer would have to demonstrate that the final design–not just the renderings, but the actual architectural design–comports with the special permit, with respect to the tapering design and the diagrid exterior.

And, almost as a reminder to the fluidity of New York zoning laws, on its web site, the New York City Department of Planning notes that “time passes, land uses change and zoning policy accommodates, anticipates and guides those changes. In a certain sense, zoning is never final; it is renewed constantly in response to new ideas–and to new challenges.”

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