New Yorkers anguished by proliferation of ‘supertall’ skyscrapers

Skyscraper called One57 at 157 W. 57th Street between Sixth and Seventh avenues , Manhattan. July 23,2015
Skyscraper called One57 at 157 W. 57th Street between Sixth and Seventh avenues , Manhattan. July 23,2015 Photo Credit: Destination DC

New York City is known for its iconic skyline — one that is changing rapidly, whether New Yorkers like it or not.

Aptly nicknamed “supertalls,” a proliferation of buildings towering well over 800 feet have been cropping up in Manhattan and quickly: since 2005, 16 of the city’s tallest buildings have broken ground in the borough, with more on the way.

And some neighbors aren’t happy.

The area directly south of Central Park has six 1,000 foot-plus buildings complete or in the works, including 432 Park Avenue, currently the world’s tallest residential building at 1,396 feet. The Nordstrom Tower on 57th Street plans to overtake it at 1,795 feet by 2018.

“It negatively impacts the infrastructure, because it adds density with no additional investment in the subway system [and] the big issue of the shadows these buildings are casting on Central Park,” said Layla Law-Gisiko, who heads Manhattan Community Board 5’s “Sunshine Task Force,” which is looking into the surge in skyscrapers near the park.

These “supertalls” are possible due to zoning laws last updated in 1961, which don’t limit building heights in the Central Park South neighborhoods, among others. Most supertall buildings currently in the works, like the Nordstrom Tower, don’t require public input as they are built “as-of-right,” and don’t need approval from the City Planning Commission or Board of Standards and Appeals.

Transferable air space is also a major force behind the developments, according to Law-Gisiko.

“You can basically buy your neighbor’s air space and build as high as you want,” which sidesteps the lot’s containment and accounts for the “super-skinny” aspect of these towers, she said.

Developers for the buildings One57, which stands 1,005 feet, 53W53, which is set to be 1,050 feet, 432 Park Avenue, and 220 Central Park South, which is set to be 920 feet, declined to comment.

Midtown isn’t the only area dealing with the deluge of vertical developments.

Catherine McVay Hughes, the chairwoman for Community Board 1 in downtown Manhattan, said TriBeCa and the Financial District were always designed for skyscrapers including the new World Trade Center Towers.

However, newer residential buildings such as 30 Park Place and the upcoming 70 Pine Street are problematic because they make an already-expensive area even more unaffordable for everyday New Yorkers.

“With the changing neighborhood, we need to make sure the people who were the original pioneers still have the opportunity to live here,” McVay Hughes said.

Meaghan Baron, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit the Municipal Arts Society, condemned zoning laws she called antiquated.

“Fifty years ago, towers weren’t being built like this,” she said.

Some residents are calling for a temporary moratorium on the buildings until the impacts on infrastructure and quality of life are studied.

Ken Herman, a musician who lives on Central Park, spoke of the impact on the area’s classic, scenic views.

“People move here to get a view of the park and now the only way to do it is to block everybody else’s view,” he said.

At a July 23 meeting sponsored by City Councilman Ben Kallos to discuss a proposed 900-foot building on residential Sutton Place, Community Board 6 member Terrence O’Neal urged his residents to brush up on their knowledge of neighborhood zoning laws.

“Act now. There are many of these buildings going up now,” he said.

State Senator Brad Hoylman, whose district includes 432 Park Avenue, agreed that zoning regulations needed a closer look in a rapidly changing Manhattan.

“There is widespread concern from the local community about their impact on neighborhood resources like open air, sunlight and park space,” he said.

Not everyone, however, was concerned about the surge in towers, calling it a natural stage in the Big Apple’s evolution.

Mitchell Moss, a professor of urban planning at NYU Wagner, noted that the city has no land to expand horizontally. So, the only place to go is up.

“Our skyscrapers are an essential parts of the city. New York is not a place where building tall buildings is new,” he said.

Gary Malin, president of real estate group Citi Habitats, which marketed 900-foot New York by Gehry, agreed, but noted that change can be hard for longtime residents.

“When the Empire State Building was built, it probably wasn’t liked that much by some people. But now it’s an essential part of New York,” he said.

Baron and other advocates acknowledge that the towers probably can’t be stopped.

“We’re not against tall buildings, at all,” Baron said. “But there has to be a trade-off discussion with developers and the neighborhood, and how the development can give back to the community.”