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05.22.2014
Editorial> It's About the Street Not the Sky
Alan G. Brake argues the city should regulate the new supertall residential towers.
Proposed supertall towers viewed from Central Park.
Courtesy MAS

Most New Yorkers embrace life in a constantly changing city and do not fear density or tall buildings. But the sudden appearance of super tall, super thin, super luxury apartment buildings rising in Downtown, Midtown, and on the Upper East Side has many asking whether we have the tools to effectively guide development in this city.

In spite of the “Two Cities” rhetoric popularized by Mayor de Blasio, and the backdrop of bailouts and Occupy, I do not want to focus this discussion on wealth or class divisions. Still, as Paul Goldberger pointed out in his recent profile of these buildings in Vanity Fair, they are not apartments in the traditional sense. They are global assets, often unoccupied, rendered in built form. That being said, extreme wealth has been and will continue to be a major driver of built form in New York, the question is how, in what form, and where.

A few years ago there was what seems now to be a rather quaint worry about new office and residential towers overshadowing the Empire State building or blocking views of it. This played out in discussions of Hudson Yards and in the planned Jean Nouvel tower adjacent to MoMA. The important issue with these finger buildings is not about preserving the skyline (a strange idea in a city of towers), but about protecting the street.

The structural advances and market forces driving these buildings have radically changed what gets built and where. Tiny lots no longer prevent great height. Engineering and sometimes tortured cantilevers make site constraints easy to bypass. Community board members often feel ambushed by developers assembling air rights in secret and presenting “as of right” plans for midblock sites on small streets.

Carol Willis, president of The Skyscraper Museum, has curated an important exhibition on the subject: Sky High & The Logic of Luxury. In it she argues that these slender towers are an entirely new type of skyscraper, one native to New York and its regulatory and financial environment. Ever a proponent of building tall, Willis believes these towers are an efficient way of attracting and housing wealth, and that these new forms add to the dynamism of the city’s skyline. She is dismissive of worries about shadows cast over Central Park and other public spaces, calling them quick-moving “sun dial shadows.”

When pressed, Willis concedes that these towers do have an effect on public spaces and streetscapes, but she believes much of the worry is an “emotional” reaction. She believes existing regulations are enough and that FAR still works to balance the needs of developers and the public. Rather than further limiting heights, she suggests a “view tax” on new tall residential buildings, which would benefit parks and public space improvements.

Call me emotional, but I remain concerned about the rapid rise and lack of oversight of these towers. Any new building type requires the careful consideration of its impact on the urban fabric. We look forward to participating in and fostering this dialogue. New York’s streets are the city’s great equalizer. They must be respected and improved, not sacrificed for the few.

Alan G. Brake