March 30, 2015
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.
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 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 its board members.
Without the deal, the project could only reach 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, they hit upon a novel idea to create their 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 Long Island City clock tower, which has loomed over Queens Plaza since 1927, was the tallest building in Queens until 1990. Credit Uli Seit for The New York Times