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Project Commodore

175 Park Avenue

Northwest corner at 42nd Street and Lexington Avenue

Project Commodore from the North

Project Commodore is just to the left in this rendering from the Chrysler Building

By Carter B. Horsley

In 2019, TF Cornerstone and MSD Partners (a group linked to Michael Dell, the founder of Dell Computers) announced plans to demolish the Grand Hyatt Hotel on the northwest corner of 42nd Street and Lexington Avenue and built a very tall, mixed-use tower in its place.

Dubbed ‘Project Commodore,’ the proposal detailed plans for an 89-story tower featuring office, retail, and hotel space, as well as new public spaces and improvements to the subway station. 

In November 2020, a development team including TF Cornerstone and RXR Realty released further details on the project, including the fact that Skidmore, Owings & Merrill would design it.

The 3 million-square-foot tower would become the tallest building in New York City by roof height, topping out in its initial plans at 1,646 feet, that was subsequently lowered to 1,483 feet.

It will replace the Grand Hyatt Hotel that replaced the Commodore Hotel across Lexington Avenue from the Chrysler Building.

It would contain 2 million square feet of office space, a 500-key Grand Hyatt hotel, 43,370 square feet of retail space, and roughly 10,000 square feet of open-air public space. 

The development of Project Commodore is possible due to the Midtown East rezoning, which also allowed SL Green and Hines to build the 73-story One Vanderbilt on 42nd Street just to the west of Grand Central Terminal (see The City Review article on One Vanderbilt). The team of developers was able to make One Vanderbilt a reality with the help of over 500,000 square feet of air rights from neighboring buildings, including Grand Central Station.

Project Commodore is between One Vanderbilt and the Chrysler Building

175 Park is across Lexington Avenue from the Chrysler Building at the right

175 Park is quite huge with a lacy top and bottom and four slightly angled setbacks breaking the tower into five sections of unequal heights. The lower three "sections" rise to about the height of the MetLife Building that originally the Pan Am Building that is just to the north of Grand Central Terminal.

The angularity of its base is somewhat related to the angled base of One Vanderbilt on the west side of Grand Central Terminal.  Both towers bear no contextual relationship with Grand Central.  One might argue that the lacy top of 175 Park Avenue is a bit related to the angularity of the top of the Chrysler Building, whose views from the west will be largely obliterated by massive bulk of 175 Park Avenue.

Its "spread leg" stance while symmetrical almost overpowers the elegant Beaux-Arts front of Grand Central Terminal and its cream-colored ramps clash with Art Deco base of the Chrysler Building across Lexington Avenue and the Chanin Building directly across 42nd Street.

Grand Central Terminal and the Chrysler Building are two of New York City's grandest landmarks and to so arrogantly ignore their immediate presence is an outrageous insult by both of these new "SuperTalls" and an egregious lack of civic-mindedness by the city's administration and its Landmarks Preservation Commission and its City Planning Commission.

On its own, 175 Park Avenue would be considered handsome in many Chinese cities and even some in America.  But it is inappropriate at this location even if it were cut in half.

Interestingly, it would not be out of place further up Park Avenue where a somewhat similar but much smaller tower is nearing completion at 425 Park Avenue, an 897-foot-tall commercial skyscraper designed by Norman Foster and developed by L & L Holding Company LLC with Adamson Associates. 

That suggests a possible solution.

Only build about half of what is now planned and move the tower north a bit to preserve some vistas from the east of the Chrsyler Building.

Then sell the unused air rights to the Milstein site of the former Biltmore Hotel so it can be developed even bigger than now contemplated but preserve its sister site, the Roosevelt Hotel as the last of the Terminal City hotels.

Interestingly enough, TF Cornerstone is one of the owners of Grand Central Station, so Project Commodore will have no problem purchasing air rights to move forward. 

Unfortunately this tale of preservatiion missteps did not save the wonderful Union Carbide Building at 270 Park Avenue that was designed by Natalie of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and has recently been demolished by Chase for a new and bigger tower designed by

Currently, the Grand Hyatt features 1,298 rooms, employs 925 people, and includes 60,000 square feet of conference and meeting space, according to the Wall Street Journal. For the development team to demolish and rebuild the property at 109 East 42nd Street, they would require a transfer of Hyatt’s property lease, which holds it through 2077. 

According to the NYC Zoning Planning Portal, developers have submitted the draft scope of work for environmental impact. If city officials approve the project, construction work is set to include 18 months of demolition and 47 months of construction.

Base of 175 Park Avenue has two ramps on 42nd Street

Base of 175 Park Avenue has two ramps on 42nd Street

If approved, the project would also bring significant improvements and updates to the nearby subway stations, including an expanded entrance at East 42nd Street and expansive underground retail space. The tower would feature retail space on the basement, first, and second floors, office space up to the 64th floor, and a Grand Hyatt hotel on floors 65th through 83rd.

Midtown East new skyline

New Midtown East skyline with 432 Park at left, 270 Park middle left, One Vanderbilt center, 175 Park center left and Chrysler Building left

An article by Jonathan Hilburg in the February 26, 2021 edition of The Architects Newspaper gave the following commentary on a hearing on the project at the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission:

"Skidmore Owings & Merrill (SOM) is leading the design team, while Beyer Blinder Belle is acting as architectural and historical consultant and James Corner Field Operations is serving as the landscape architect.

"The team went before the LPC on the 23rd because the New York State Historic Preservation Officer had asked the commission to weigh in on whether the proposed tower was harmonious with Grand Central. The commissioners ultimately voted 8-to-2 to approve, with vice chair Frederick Bland, a partner at Beyer Blinder Belle, recusing himself.

"Overall, the commissioners liked how the outdoor terraces on the plinth of Project Commodore would flow into the upper level of Grand Central Terminal, creating a consistent street wall. Commissioner Adi Shamir-Baron noted that SOM drew on the existing datum lines to match the tower’s patterning with Grand Central and said the project 'harmonized through contrast' with the Beaux Arts rail terminal. She also appreciated the way that the fluted exoskeletal facade 'parts' at the base akin to pulled fabric, both creating public plazas as the building tapers at ground level and preserving views of Grand Central through the gaps.

"However, the enthusiasm wasn’t unanimous. When commissioner Michael Goldblum testified, he acknowledged that the current zoning encourages tall towers for the area, but said that Project Commodore, in every measure, 'fails to meet anything considered to be harmonious.'

View  of Chrsyler without 175 Park

View of Chrsyler Building and Grand Hyatt Hotel east of Grand Central Terminal

“'The design is scaleless, introverted, and anonymous. I don’t think it should be built on this site,' he added. '[The project’s materiality] is antithetical to the mostly masonry environment of Grand Central and the environment.'

View to the west

View to the west

"Commissioner Diana Chapin disagreed, saying she found the masonry elements of the project’s plinth in harmony with the neighboring terminal. Chapin added that the building’s height shouldn’t be disqualifying either, as the Grand Hyatt it was replacing was also quite tall (though it was only 295 feet).

"On the topic of the new connector passage between Project Commodore and the existing rail terminal, commissioner Michael Devonshire was bullish that the work would 'expand public accessibility without damaging any architectural features.'

"The project was presented as two separate docket items; the appropriateness of the tower’s base in relation to Grand Central Terminal, and an application to change the viaduct sidewalk and the 42nd Street passage as previously mentioned. The first item passed 8-to-0, while the second passed unanimously. No public testimony was given."

View of the base from the west

View of the base from the west

The Municipal Art Society gave testimony at the commission in opposition to the project:

"The Municipal Art Society of New York (MAS) has a long and storied history with Grand Central
Terminal. As many of you know, MAS formed the Committee to Save Grand Central, instrumental in
securing both its future and that of the Landmarks Law itself. As a result, MAS reviewed the proposed
175 Park Avenue (Project Commodore) through a very protective lens.

"The dictionary definition of harmonious is “forming a pleasing or consistent whole,” or “free from
disagreement or dissent.” Neither of these descriptions apply to the relationship between the proposal for
175 Park Avenue and Grand Central Terminal

"The project team clearly states that their intention was that 175 Park Avenue make referential gestures to
Grand Central Terminal in recalling its Beaux-Arts symmetry, relating the expressed beams to the fluted
columns, connecting the above grade open space to the Pershing Square viaduct, and stepping back at the
street line to open up views of the previously obscured eastern fašade of Grand Central Terminal.

"However, none of these efforts result in a successful dialogue with the neighboring landmark. Instead, 175
Park Avenue’s design reads as a standalone structure with no relation to its historic neighbor.
First, the amalgamation of columns on the four corners of the base are a busy distraction from the visual
impact of Grand Central. The configuration of the columns results from the engineering challenge of
improving the maze of subway platforms beneath—an outcome that is extremely desirable—however, the
column flutes are super-human in scale and their termination at the deck of the plinth is abrupt.
Secondly, the facade at the base is grossly out of scale and not convincingly referential to the Grand
Central. The pedestrian experience, especially when coming from the east will be visually overwhelmed
by the 175 Park entrance and staircase. Though the improved circulation to the Pershing Square viaduct is
a welcome addition, it does nothing to enhance the visual experience approaching Grand Central and may,
in fact, obscure the entrance to the landmark.

"Meanwhile, the reveal of the eastern fašade is, in fact, an ahistorical mitigation of a longstanding
historical condition. Given the history of both Terminal City and the Commodore Hotel, the eastern
fašade of Grand Central was never intended to be seen. The implications of this revisionist correction and
how it contributes to the 'harmonious' relationship between the two buildings should be questioned.
It is not just the base that has a negative impact. The overwhelming density and dispiriting design of the
rest of the tower should not go unmentioned. The building’s footprint alone competes with the scale of
Grand Central at the base and then overpowers it with the immense height and bulk of the tower above. It
is worth noting that the enormous density results from a series of bonuses, as well as a zoning lot merger,
that were never anticipated to be taken in total in the East Midtown rezoning process. In fact, the FAR of
the proposed tower exceeds the expected threshold by almost 30%.

"While the finding of a harmoniousness is narrowly focused on the relationship to Grand Central, it cannot
be ignored that this new building will overwhelm one of the nicest ensembles of 20th Century skyscraper
architecture in New York City. The tower’s windswept setbacks have no reference points to the Chrysler
Building across the street or anything else in the Midtown skyline. 175 Park Avenue is a series of
extruded boxes more appropriate for Dallas or Dubai. Finally, the squat stump of a 'crown' stands in
stark contrast to the Chrysler’s exuberant and elegant spire. In the end, Project Commodore as proposed,
is interruption to the experience Grand Central Terminal and the historic buildings that surround it at both
the sidewalk and skyline level.

"Although there is no clear criteria for a finding of harmoniousness, the Commission need only refer to its
own discussion of One Vanderbilt. In 2015, it was stated that along 42nd street, harmoniousness
constitutes a visual relationship wherein a new building will not detract from the impact of Grand Central.
With this in mind, it seems impossible for the Commission to find that 175 Park Avenue meets the
standard of harmoniousness."

The Grand Hyatt New York will continue accepting reservations through at least July 31, 2022.

Commodore Hotel

Original Commodore Hotel before converted and "modernized" into the Grand Hyatt Hotel

The Commodore Hotel was constructed by The Bowman-Biltmore Hotels group. The structure itself was developed as part of Terminal City, a complex of palatial hotels and offices connected to Grand Central Terminal and all owned by The New York State Realty and Terminal Company a division of The New York Central Railroad.

The Commodore was named after "Commodore" Cornelius Vanderbilt, the founder of The New York Central Railroad System, whose Statue adorns The Grand Central Driveway next door to the hotel to this day. The Commodore was designed by Warren & Wetmore and leased by The New York State Realty and Terminal Company to The Bowman-Biltmore Hotels Corporation of which John McEntee Bowman was President.

The Commodore opened its doors on January 28, 1919. Bowman-Biltmore's own Herbert R. Stone oversaw the decor of its 2000 rooms. The "Most Beautiful Lobby in The World" as it was known was also the single largest room of the day with modern low ceilings and a waterfall designed by John B. Smeraldi. A group of conventioneers once told Bowman that "New York City was like a circus", so the next day Bowman, ever a showman, arranged to place a circus, complete with elephants, in the grand ballroom. Another popular spot was the Century Room, which boasted its own orchestra.

The Commodore shared a parking garage with its sister hotel The New York Biltmore Hotel, Bowman-Biltmore's first hotel investment. Another Terminal City property one block from both The Biltmore and The Commodore is The Roosevelt Hotel, a United Hotel asset which merged with Bowman-Biltmore Corporation on March 4, 1929 which gave them access to all railroad passenger traffic in and out of New York City.

The Commodore was successful for decades and in June 1967 The New York Central Railroad, which by then was running the hotel through a division called Realty Hotels, upgraded The Commodore with a 3.4 million-dollar refurbishment. On May 10, 1972, while John R. Garside was the hotel's General Manager, The Commodore became the first hotel in New York City to show in-room movies through Player Cinema Systems. By the late 1970s, both the railroad line, now called The Penn Central Transportation Company, and the hotel itself, had become less successful. On May 11, 1977, the bankrupt railroad's asset manager Victor Palmieri told the city that the Commodore had lost $1.5 million in 1976 and might have to be shuttered. At that point, the Trump Organization bought The Commodore.

At the time of opening, The Commodore featured 2,000 rooms. Its excellent location and direct connection to Grand Central made it a highly appealing destination for tourists and visitors. However, over the following decades, the hotel started to lose some of its glamour and appeal.

On March 28, 1976 I wrote the following commentary on the hotel for The New York Times:

"The city administration's program to spark an economic resurgence by granting substantial tax relief or favorable leasing arrangements to major new commercial and industrial development projects will receive its first test next ??? when the Board of Estimate votes on a proposal to reconstruct the Commodore Hotel at Lexington Avenue and 42d Street.

"As the program's prototype, the Commodore Hotel plan is viewed by planners, economists and the real estate community as a critical indicator of the program's viability.

"The incentive program is aimed at assisting those projects that would otherwise be unattractive to investors in today's depressed city economy. Eligible projects must create 'a reasonable number of full‐time jobs,' achieve a positive economic impact on an area beyond their immediate sites, and eventually return to full taxpaying status.

"They must also provide public amenities or benefits beyond those normally required or provide the city with 'assets of significant and sustaining value,' and the city must share in their profits.

"Beyond these broad outlines, however, the program has no detailed mechanics. In announcing the program last January, Mayor Beame declared that 'in this pivotal year for governmental change in New York, the city and state must move aggressively to preserve our traditional economic strengths and to encourage new business growth.'

Many planners agree. For example, Joel W. Harnett, the chairman of the City. Club, remarked that 'perhaps it's time to tear up the rule book.'

But others, no less concerned with the generation of private investment in the city, are more guarded. 'There probably has to be some sort of incentive, but maybe too much is being given,' Harry B. Helmsley, the head of Helmsley‐Spear Inc., said.

Some organizations, such as the Hotel Association of New York, feel the Commodore plan might be an un fair burden for competing hotels already in operation and receiving no tax abatement.

"And many civic groups, while favoring the program in principle, are wary of windfall profits and 'gunshy' of past city leasing practices, such as at the Hunts Point Market. In fact, some city councilmen and state legislators recently called for a thorough reform of the city's leasing policies.

"Those who are cautious about the Incentive program are raising questimas as to how many projects could quality and how long those that did should receive tax relief. They point to the city's eroding tax base and ask how much future revenue the city can afford to sacrifice even if the projects do not require the outlay of public funds.

"Further, they ask, is it possible to forecast land and property values and tax rates as much as 50 years in advance? If the city's economy should turn around in the next few years, could the long‐term abatements be renegotiated? What kind of design and planning reviews should be imposed? And how could the abatement projects relate to other long‐term objectives such as the redevelopment of Times Square.

"The administration, according to Economic Development Administrator Alfred Eisenpreis, hopes that the plan will be seen as 'a signal to the business community that there has been change.' Mr. Eisenpreis said in an interview that there were several other specific proposals that might move ahead if the Commodore redevelopment proceeds.

"Despite the complexity of the Commodore plan, the city is eager to act quickly on it because Penn‐Central does not expect to keep the hotel open much longer. The bankrupt railroad lost more than $1 million on the hotel last year. It spent that sum on renovations before it decided that no further funds would be committed. A closed Commodore Hotel would, according to Mr. Eisenpreis, have 'a very serious blighting influence on the east midtown area.'

"Even if the plan is achieved, the area's future is somewhat cloudy inasmuch as several major properties, including the Chrysler Building immediately across Lexington Avenue from the Commodore, are in severe financial difficulties.

"The developer of the Commodore Hotel plan is Donald Trump, the 29year‐old president of the Trump Organization, which owns 22,000 apartments, mostly in the city's outer boroughs. Mr. Trump, whose father Frederick is chairman of the company, is involved in the potential development of two other Penn‐Central properties in the city, the West 30th and the West 60th Street yards. His proposal to erect a convention center at the western terminus of 34th Street is now under active consideration.

"Mr. Trump's proposal would strip the 60‐year‐old, 1,800‐room hotel down to its steel skeleton. In its place, Mr. Trump would build a bronze‐tinted reflective glass facade of the same shape and bulk. It would contain 1,400 hotel rooms and enlarged convention and meeting room facilities.

"The existing ballroom, for example, would be expanded from 16,000 to 22,000 square feet and the two‐story lobby would be increased in height to three stories. A glass‐enclosed restaurant would be created at the second level that would overhang the sidewalk and other restaurant facilities would be placed on the 42d Street setback of the H‐shaped structure. Outside, glass‐enclosed elevators fronting on 42d Street would operate between the lobby floor on the second level and the ballroom several levels above.

"In 1976, Donald Trump joined forces with the Hyatt chain and purchased the 2,000-key Commodore Hotel with the aid of a 40-year, $400 million property tax abatement. The asset was rebranded as a Grand Hyatt and underwent a $100 million upgrade that included a new mirror-glass facade and new interiors. However, after several legal battles and controversies, the Hyatt group purchased Donald Trump’s 50 per cent share in the hotel in 1996, thus ending his involvement with the property."

The Grand Hyatt New York was renovated in 2011.

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