Tennis at the Former Hotel Pennsylvania, Anyone?

Graphic: Vornado Realty Trust

Why, exactly, did Vornado take down the Hotel Pennsylvania in 2023? It was on the doomed list for years before it was demolished, though various plans to rehab it had been offered. Ultimately, Vornado and its CEO, Steve Roth, decided the land would eventually be worth more topped with a new skyscraper than with 20 stolid floors of prewar hotel rooms, and that was that. Maybe they got a good deal from an idle demolition company, owing to the pandemic slowdown and subsequent office-market crunch. Maybe they didn’t want anyone suggesting it could be used as migrant housing. Or maybe they just didn’t want to maintain an empty building and risk its decay into an eyesore. In any case, the tower that is to replace it, hilariously called PENN15, has been postponed indefinitely, and now the site is a vacant lot.

Mostly vacant, that is. Late last week, we learned from Crain’s that Vornado is looking to bide its time by using that half-block of land — about two acres — as a space for corporate-sponsored fun. The rendering for Penn Platform, as it’s called, shows tennis courts, potentially affiliated with the U.S. Open, and basketball courts, potentially affiliated with the Knicks across the street. Take down the nets and hoops and you could stage outdoor concerts or drinks parties there. A video screen 150 feet high would run ads most of the time and replays or backdrops when there’s an event going on. You could see a dance party there some summer afternoon or an open-air cocktail bar like the ones by the marina outside Brookfield Place; go past there on a Friday afternoon in June, and it is hopping. It’s better than weeds and a few broken bricks, though the relentless LED video-ification of public space is beginning to drive me nuts (and others have it worse than I do). The city certainly needs more spaces like this, particularly outdoors, particularly in dense areas, and this one, unlike a city park, can be constructed in no time.

But this is, of course, not a civic project but a private one, and the clock is ticking. A company controlled by a near-billionaire — who literally lives in Bernie Madoff’s Hamptons house — is bestowing something, presumably to cultivate goodwill and make the land pay a little bit while the organization waits for market conditions to improve. It’s not housing, which it could have had a whole bunch of had the old hotel building been rehabbed. It’s not public, either, even if it looks parklike: Vornado can eject anyone it wishes. And in a few years, the market will improve, its time will come to an end, and the delayed erection of PENN15, or something like it, will proceed. (I guarantee you that when that day comes, there will be a wan little op-ed somewhere suggesting it be kept the way it is, as if that were ever an option.) Till then, enjoy your brief handout of light and air and perhaps an Aperol spritz. Would we go watch a pro-tennis exhibition match there? Yeah, we would. Will we enjoy it? Probably.

Tennis at the Former Hotel Pennsylvania, Anyone?