one vanderbilt
Image courtesy KPF
Looking north from 42nd Street up Vanderbilt Avenue, One Vanderbilt is on the left and Grand Central is on the right.

Grand Central Terminal, now polished and celebrated, has suffered many indignities since its 1913 opening on 42nd Street and Park Avenue. The two most notorious: having the monolithic 59-story Pan Am (now MetLife) Building wedged between it and the distinctive 1929 New York Central (now Helmsley) Building just one block north, in the early 1960s; and Donald Trump’s late ‘70s transformation of the adjacent Commodore Hotel into the Grand Hyatt, a black glass edifice wildly unsympathetic to the stately monument to the east on 42nd Street.

It’s in that context that preservationists are dismayed about Grand Central’s future next-door neighbor to the west, which is almost certain to be Midtown’s tallest tower, Kohn Pedersen Fox’s (KPF) One Vanderbilt , a 1,450-foot glass skyscraper with an asymmetrical façade. Occupying the block bounded by 42nd Street, 43rd Street, Vanderbilt, and Madison Avenues, the new tower will replace several historic buildings, including the 1912, 200-foot masonry structure at 51 East 42nd Street by Warren & Wetmore, Grand Central’s architects, the last of the remaining original buildings designed to frame the station in a complementary Beaux Arts style.

One Vanderbilt’s developer, SL Green, has offered the city a package of transit infrastructure improvements worth an estimated $210 million in exchange for permission to build the 1.6 million square foot, 30 FAR tower. These amenities include a pedestrian plaza intended to make shadowy Vanderbilt Avenue more appealing; a soaring ‘transit hall’ in the lobby of the new building with a living green wall and a central staircase providing access to Grand Central’s main concourse; and a variety of stair, ramp, and escalator connections between train and subway lines that the city and Metropolitan Transit Authority say are needed but that they cannot afford to build.

SL Green intends to demolish the Vanderbilt Avenue building, along with other venerable structures on the same block, including 317 Madison (Carrere & Hastings, 1922) and 331 Madison (Charles Berg, 1911, and Van Alen & Severance, 1924). The major retail tenant at 51 East 42nd, Modell’s sporting goods store, leaves next month, and there are plans to break ground for One Vanderbilt later this year, says Andrea Goldwyn, Director of Public Policy for the New York Landmarks Conservancy.

But before the way is officially clear for construction of the enormous tower (and others like it), a NYC Department of City Planning proposal to upzone the Vanderbilt Corridor, a five-block stretch running along Grand Central’s eastern side, from 42nd to 47th between Madison and Vanderbilt, must first be approved. The proposal, which will allow developers to construct buildings up to 30 FAR (Floor Area Ratio, the ratio of total building floor area to lot size) in lieu of the Vanderbilt Corridor’s current base maximum of 15 FAR and provide “greater opportunity for area landmarks to transfer their unused development rights,” has been making its way since last fall through ULURP (Uniform Land Use Review Procedure), the city’s public review process. It has garnered opposition from preservation groups and Manhattan Community Boards Five and Six, whose opinions are merely advisory. At present, the proposal is in the office of Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, awaiting her recommendation; it then heads to the City Council, with final votes to be taken around mid-year.

If the Vanderbilt Corridor rezoning proposal goes through, as many expect, other historic structures in the Vanderbilt Corridor, including the 1,015-room Roosevelt Hotel (George B. Post, 1924) at Madison Avenue and 45th Street, last of the grande dame hotels that once surrounded the station, and the 22-story, limestone-faced Yale Club (James Gamble Rogers, 1915) could be next in line. “The Vanderbilt Corridor rezoning plan is moving ahead and seems to have the support of the [de Blasio] administration,” Goldwyn says. “If the plan is approved, and potential for much larger development made available, that will become an option building owners have to consider.” Says Philip K. Howard, a lawyer who is Chair Emeritus of the Municipal Arts Society and author of several books on public policy (The Rule of Nobody, The Death of Common Sense): “My instinct is that the new zoning would be the end of the Roosevelt, and perhaps the Yale Club.”

At a January 20 panel discussion titled “Is the Vanderbilt Corridor the Future of East Midtown?,” held at the Museum of the City of New York (MCNY), moderator Charles V. Bagli, a New York Times real estate reporter, raised the specter of Dubai-like towers potentially looming not just over Grand Central Station but even obliterating the nearby Chrysler Building, designed by William Van Alen and completed in 1930. James von Klemperer, president and design principal at KPF, defended the new tower’s design, assuring the audience that One Vanderbilt—43,000 square feet at the base, tapering to 15,000 square feet on the upper floors—“has visual porosity on the skyline. It slims down to something very delicate at the top.” In the architect’s view, “Next to Grand Central is a great place for a marker of great height. It’s a dancing partner for the Chrysler Building, appropriate for its place.”

Edith Hsu-Chen, director of the Manhattan Office of the NYC Department of City Planning, voiced the city’s concern that without the new upzoning, the aging buildings of the Midtown East district, Vanderbilt Corridor included, will be even less competitive with new state-of-the-art office construction in Hudson Yards and the Financial District.

“The current zoning doesn’t respect the needs of the city,” said the Hon. Daniel R. Garodnick, a New York City Council member whose district includes all of Midtown East, a 73-block area surrounding Grand Central. He regards the Vanderbilt Corridor proposal, in which the city stands to gain infrastructure improvements in exchange for increased FAR, as a decent alternative to “unfettered as-of-right development” (that does not require review or approval by City Planning), “which would be the other extreme.” 

These, of course, are not opinions shared by those in the preservation community (none of whom were represented in the MCNY program). Architect Peter Pennoyer, a longtime preservation activist and author of The Architecture of Warren & Wetmore (W.W. Norton), points out that Grand Central was conceived as the centerpiece of Terminal City, a visually unified urban planning scheme in which dozens of hotels, office buildings, and apartment houses were built atop the station’s railroad yards in the 1910s and 1920s. “It was an urban ensemble, a mythic place, arguably more important than Rockefeller Center,” he says.

About three-quarters of Terminal City’s original buildings, which extended north into the East 50’s and east to Lexington Avenue, disappeared during the post-World War II building frenzy. The Vanderbilt Avenue building (51 E. 42nd Street), the Roosevelt Hotel, and the Yale Club are among those that remain. Efforts to preserve them have been hampered, thus far, by a public that hasn’t loudly taken up the cause. Pennoyer believes that’s because Vanderbilt Corridor is not a residential district. “There’s no natural grass-roots constituency to get engaged,” he says. “Instead of thousands upon thousands of people in apartments getting upset about zoning changes and demolitions, you have a few real estate companies."