New York’s New Endangered Resource
‘Supertall’ buildings are sprouting like beanstalks in central New York, costing its citizens precious sunshine and air, and turning the city’s skyline into a jumble.
On his terrace overlooking Central Park, a friend who is a wealthy tutoring entrepreneur is pointing. “The Nordstrom Tower – we think that’s going to be the one,” he says, indicating the site at 225 West 57th Street, where a condo tower is rising to a height of 1770 feet. He means the one that will finally block his view of the Empire State Building, the most famous skyscraper in the world.
It’s hard to feel sorry for a millionaire losing a bauble in a jewelled necklace of lights. But all New Yorkers are losing familiar vistas, and some are losing light and air, as supertall buildings sprout like beanstalks in midtown Manhattan. There are a dozen such “supertalls” – buildings of 1,000 feet or higher – in the construction or planning stages. And the buildings are not, as in Dubai or Shanghai’s Pudong district, being constructed where nothing else had stood. They are, instead, crowding into already dense neighbourhoods where light and air are at a premium, and quality-of-life issues are on the minds of everyone except, perhaps, the billionaires buying the cloud-hung condos as investment properties.
The construction of towers surrounding the Empire State Building is just one part of the problem. For 85 years, the Empire State has been a symbol of the city – New York’s incomparable logo – and a wayfinding device par excellence. Lost in Manhattan? Swivel until you see that famous mast, the one that King Kong clung to, and you have your bearings. Without the tallest point in a hierarchical skyline, the city will be disorienting, to residents and visitors alike.
And more of the city will be in shadow. In 2013, Warren St John, a writer who lives near Central Park, began campaigning for a moratorium on new skyscrapers immediately south of the park; his concern was that playgrounds and ballfields would increasingly be in shadow. The city’s outgoing mayor Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire, wasn’t about to block construction of condos for his plutocratic peers; more surprisingly, the city’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio, a populist, hasn’t addressed the issue either. By all accounts, he needs developers on his side if they are going to build the subsidised housing he hopes to make a part of his legacy. Whatever the reason, De Blasio “has signalled no interest in curtailing development in any way”, says a disappointed St John.
If so, the mayor is turning his back on a history of reining in development for the sake of the many. More than 100 years ago, New York pioneered zoning codes designed to bring light and air (if not Central Park views) to even its most disadvantaged residents. In 1879, the city introduced a “tenement law” that required small apartment buildings for the lower-classes to include airshafts; in 1901, the law was revised to call for large-scale courtyards.
Around the same time, titans of industry were building skyscrapers in midtown and the Financial District. (In those days, large commercial enterprises were confined to a few neighbourhoods, a kind of segregation that no longer exists.) Some of the structures, particularly the Equitable Building at 120 Broadway, completed in 1915, with more than one million square-feet of space on a one-acre site, were so overpowering that, in 1916, the city began requiring setbacks at various heights, to make sure light and air reached the street.
The setback requirements, generally ensuring large reductions in floor area above the 10th storey, and further reductions higher up, led to one of the most distinctive building types of the 20th century: the wedding-cake tower, with the striations required by law inspiring jazz-age architects to greatness. (The Empire State and Chrysler Buildings are elongated examples of the form; the setback laws allowed for towers of any height so long as they were less than a quarter of the area of the building lot below.)
But in 1961 the city revised the zoning laws again, making the wedding-cake towers period pieces. Instead, entranced by Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building on Park Avenue, a masterpiece of bronze metal set back in a handsome plaza, officials switched to a zoning code that encourages standalone towers. In exchange for ceding open space to the public, developers could build straight up (the permissible height was governed by a calculation called “floor area ratio”, or FAR). The problem: not every architect is as good as Mies, or every client as generous as Seagram. The city was overtaken by banal, sheer towers set in plazas that offered very little to the public and, given the height of the new buildings, were often in shadow.
But that was a time of a rising middle class, when affordable housing was being built all over the city, and residents commuted to jobs in blocky office buildings (increasingly, commercial tenants wanted large floor plates). Only the World Trade Center, 1,368 feet high, overtook the Empire State Building in height. But the 110-storey Twin Towers, anchoring their own downtown skyline and set in a giant plaza (called a “superblock”), were a special case. Otherwise, buildings of 40-60 storeys were the norm.
No one, it seems, was anticipating the current wave of pencil-thin, supertall towers. The technology they depend on has been around for decades — “mass dampers”, which prevent thin towers from swaying uncomfortably, are nothing new. So has the structural know-how that allows them to rise safely even from tiny bases. One of the buildings, 432 Park Avenue, has recently topped out at 1,396 feet, from a site of just 90 feet square.
The real generator of form now is the winner-take-all economy — and with it, the demand for sky-high condos at sky-high prices. Virtually all of the new buildings are condominiums with just one unit to a floor, which means they can get by with very few elevators. And that, in turns, mean they can be built even on very narrow lots. In other words, the demand for $20m to $100m condos, with views in all directions and no next-door neighbours, has given rise to a new building type – making the revised skyline the physical manifestation of New York’s income disparities.
Amazingly, none of the towers required city permission (although they did require clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration, given Manhattan’s proximity to three airports). The city doesn’t limit height, just floor area ratio, and developers, can buy “air rights” from adjacent buildings, letting them go supertall “as of right”. The developer of the Nordstrom Tower, named for the department store at its base, bought air rights from the neighbouring Art Students League, paying the venerable school (which had no plans to enlarge its handsome, 1892 building) some $30m.
Things are very different in the City of London, where the size and shape of every building is negotiated with planning officials – nothing is built “as of right”. Yet neither system is perfect: Rafael Vinoly, the architect who created 432 Park Avenue – which has become the focus of New Yorkers’ enmity – also designed London’s Walkie-Talkie. Officially named 20 Fenchurch Street, the Walkie-Talkie is reviled, but at least it was intended to provide public amenities.
The same can’t be said for 432 Park Avenue, or the other condo buildings going up around it. Not only are these new towers casting long shadows on Central Park; they are turning the New York skyline, for most of the 20th century a kind of ziggurat with the Empire State Building as its peak, into a jumble.
As for life below? The buildings are making the city less pleasant for anyone who cannot afford one of the condos in the sky. Think of it as the new Upstairs, Downstairs, but on an urban scale.
This article originally appeared in The Guardian.