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‘15 Penn Plaza’ Skyscraper Could Affect FM Signals

Planned 67-story building draws scrutiny from New York engineers

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The planned tower at 15 Penn Plaza is shown at dusk in an artist’s rendering. Empire State Building is at left. Building renderings by Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects

NEW YORK — A developer’s plan to build a new 67-story building in midtown Manhattan is drawing a closer look from FM broadcasters worried that the structure could partially block their radio transmissions from atop the nearby Empire State Building.

The skyscraper, named 15 Penn Plaza, is to be built just two blocks from venerable Empire, home to most main FM and television broadcast antennas in the city.

Vornado Realty Trust is the developer behind the proposed $3 billion project, which has gained city council approval but likely is years from completion. Company officials have indicated construction will begin once major tenants are confirmed for the 1,190-foot building. By comparison, Empire is 1,250 feet, plus a 204-foot antenna structure.

Vornado, which says it’s one of the largest owners and managers of real estate in the United States, has 28 office properties in New York City, many in midtown.

The building’s designer, Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects, is known for designing some of the world’s tallest buildings, including the Petronas Towers in Malaysia.

Vornado officials have not indicated an interest in building rooftop broadcast facilities atop the new tower, according to observers.

The Empire State Building is home to 19 FM stations and most of the city’s digital television transmitters. Many radio and television broadcasters migrated there after the collapse of the World Trade Center’s twin towers in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 (see sidebar).

Multipath issues are nothing new in the city because of its monstrously tall buildings, but the proximity of the skyscraper to the Empire State Building — approximately a quarter-mile — raises a red flag for some in the broadcast community.

Any nearby obstruction to FM signals from Empire could have a major impact on the radio market, observers said, New York generates the second-most revenue among radio markets in the country, according to BIA/Kelsey.

Some local observers agree that 15 Penn Plaza could “cast a significant signal shadow” southwest of the city, and in particular affect listening in the suburbs.

Jim Stagnitto, director of engineering for New York Public Radio, is concerned about both of his FMs at Empire, WNYC(FM) and WQXR(FM). “WQXR is a low-power Class B and will be especially susceptible to multipath in New Jersey. I’m very concerned. And without a predictive study to examine, we really don’t know how bad it could be,” Stagnitto said.

“It would be a fairly expensive study, but it could make for a good argument on behalf of all the broadcasters [at Empire].”

Vornado shows street-level plans in these Pelli Clarke Pelli architectural renderings prepared for the New York City Council Zoning Subcommittee.
Watching closely

Tall buildings and mountains that disrupt radio signals sufficiently can cause multipath, in which a listener’s radio receives multiple waves of the same signal.

Several broadcast engineers in the city declined to discuss potential interference issues, citing their tenant relationship with management at the Empire State Building.

Josh Hadden, director of engineering and IT for Clear Channel Radio/New York, said, “We are studying the different potential impacts the building could have on us. We are watching the development of the plan closely.”

Empire, Durst Facilities Grew After 9/11 New York City’s broadcast communications infrastructure was altered dramatically following the terrorism attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Dozens of radio and television broadcasters that lost facilities when the twin towers collapsed scrambled to find vertical real estate alternatives.

Since then, Empire’s rooftop facilities have grown to include nearly every radio and television broadcaster in the city. There remains talk among market observers of a rebuild of the master FM antenna at Empire.

“That antenna was not designed originally for that many radio stations. Then you add all of the primary television antennae, which sit on top of the master FM, and it’s likely you need a new tower,” said one broadcast engineer familiar with the facilities.

“Talks are getting a little more serious now. It’s down to the financial issue of who will pay for what.”

The Durst Organization completed a broadcast antenna project atop the Condé Nast Building at 4 Times Square in midtown Manhattan in 2004. That site is used primarily as an auxiliary platform for radio broadcasters and some television stations. Durst officials, like those at Empire, declined comment for this story.

The One World Trade Center project in lower Manhattan, formerly known as the Freedom Tower, is ongoing and could be completed during 2012. The Metropolitan Television Alliance, a coalition of a dozen television stations in New York City area displaced in the collapse of World Trade Center twin towers, had said its members intended to use several of the top floors of One World Trade Center for broadcast and antenna facilities.

However, plans for a rooftop television antenna project there have never been finalized, according to observers.

— Randy J. Stine All five of Clear Channel’s FMs have transmission facilities on Empire.

Signal reflection will be another concern for broadcasters at Empire, said Tom Ray, vice president and director of corporate engineering for Buckley Radio’s WOR(AM) in New York City and a Radio World contributor.

“There certainly could be some reflection in the opposite direction that could cause multipath,” he said.

Another broadcast engineer in the city believes the new building “won’t create a real concern” but notes it will be difficult to test for potential issues in advance of construction.

“There will be some dramatic shadowing on the west side of Manhattan (from Empire) by the new building, but there isn’t much there anyway. You have Penn Station, the post office and then the Hudson River, and that’s about it,” the engineer said.

A different broadcast engineer raised the issue of radiofrequency exposure posing a risk to the inhabitants of the top floors of the Vornado Realty Trust building because of its proximity to the Empire broadcast platform, but said the risk could be minimized by using RF-proof glass and non-radiating metal on the top floors of the new building.

Empire’s owners, including co-owner Anthony Malkin, objected to plans for the new building, arguing it would adversely impact the skyline of the city and infringe upon the building’s historical status. The Empire State Building, declared a landmark by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1981, was completed in 1931 and had its first broadcast antenna added in 1951. Empire officials declined comment for this story.