A Boom With a View

Empire State Building, 30 Rock Battle for Big Observatory Bucks; 1 WTC May Top Both

The view from the Empire State Building observation deck was especially expansive on March 13, with crystal-clear skies hovering over the five boroughs, New Jersey and, visible to the north, Westchester County. Yet Coco Jones briefly dominated the panorama.

Ms. Jones, 15, was perched, alone, on the southeastern corner of the deck. The Disney Channel alumna—she appeared on the cable network’s short-lived sketch comedy series So Random!—had released her debut EP, Made Of, the previous day. And although its lead single, “Holla at the DJ,” had yet to chart on Billboard’s Hot 100, Ms. Jones was ready to celebrate its release on the Empire State’s Building’s 86th floor.

Coco Jones, on top of the world.

Coco Jones, on top of the world.

Two dozen paparazzi snapped photos of the lanky teenager during a three-minute shoot. The handful of visitors who recognized the fledgling pop star took amateur shots as Ms. Jones posed with, and peered through the wrong end of, swiveling binoculars.

Ms. Jones had been here before, looking out over the city with a cadre of thrice-named Disney Channel personalities, including China Anne McClain and the brothers Williams (Tyler James and Tyrel Jackson). The diminutive celebrities belie big business at the peak of—for now—New York’s tallest observatory.

The Empire State Building’s 86th and 102nd floor observation decks attract about four million visitors and rake in $60 million in profits each year. That’s compared with the “little if any money” building owner Malkin Properties made from the asset’s office spaces, according to a 2011 New York Times article.

Farther north in Midtown, another real estate dynasty—Tishman Speyer—brings about 2.5 million annual visitors to Top of the Rock, the terrace on the 70th floor of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, which the company owns. Those gawkers generate about $25 million in profits. Adult tickets cost $25 at both decks, while the Empire State Building charges up to $64.50 for tickets that expedite the line and elevator waiting times.

Attendance at sky-high observation decks has spiked along with the number of tourists visiting New York; between 2002 and 2011, that figure rose from 35.2 million to 50 million. Before the September 11 attacks, fewer than two million people each year visited the 107-story observation deck at the World Trade Center.

The growth is impressive, considering the lack of tourist amenities at the city’s two prime viewing towers. Neither the Empire State Building nor 30 Rock is topped by a restaurant or bar. The latter’s Rainbow Room was closed in 2009 amidst a dispute between Tishman Speyer and restaurant operators the Ciprianis. The Rainbow Room received landmark status last fall, but its future as a restaurant and event space is murky.

Pictures of Disney Channel stars, U.S. Open tennis champs, Justin Bieber, Mariah Carey and, funny enough, the Rockefeller Center-based Today show crew line the Empire State Building’s elevator-bank walls. And last October, Top of the Rock did nab Screaming Broccolli, a cover band and wedding-reception staple, to close out its Fall Starlight Music Series. Still, for the millions of people who ascend New York’s loftiest skyscrapers each year, the view is the thing.

There’s competition on the aerial horizon for the Empire State Building and Top of the Rock. As of last fall, three finalists were vying to operate the observatory on the 100th through 102nd floors of 1 World Trade Center. What will be the city’s tallest deck is expected to draw up to five million visitors a year.

The Canadian company GSM Projects–a partner of restaurateur Danny Meyer–had been in the running to operate the space, and there were rumors of a Shake Shack in the sky. But it was announced yesterday that the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey would give the contract to Yankee Stadium concessionaire Legends Hospitality.

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