New Development Week

How new construction is changing NYC's skyline

The city's contours are ever-evolving. 


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December's opening of 432 Park Avenue, a luxury condominium building, marked an interesting milestone: the 85-floor property is the world's hundredth "supertall" building, and the highest residential one. Supertalls—skyscrapers between 300 and 600 meters high—are long and lean, the supermodels of the architectural world, and they're springing up across the city. In addition to 432 Park, the 75-story One57 is home to 92 condos, one of which is NYC's most expensive residence. The building will soon have several towering neighbors: 57th Street has been dubbed "Billionaire's Row" thanks to six more high-end supertalls that are scheduled to line the street. 

This flurry of supertall development is altering the city's skyline, prompting mixed reactions from locals. Native New Yorker Pete Hamill, for instance, lamented the looming presence of these buildings in an essay for National Geographic: Manhattan's new architectural face is a "sneering" one, he wrote, and "the new superthin, supertall buildings are blocking the sky, casting long, arrogant shadows on streets once caressed by sun."

These shadows have spurred some controversy: Last fall, New Yorkers protested the buildings' impact, claiming they darken large swathes of Central Park. And in the Sutton Place neighborhood, residents have banded together to fight plans for another supertall, on the grounds that it will be disruptive to the otherwise low-key (and lower density) block.

Is the rise of supertalls just another aspect of New York's constant evolution, or do they represent something new to the city's landscape? "All of the above," says Julia Vitullo-Martin, a senior fellow at the Regional Plan Association. While the construction of supertalls is supported by new technology, “the concept of overly aggressive, dense, large developments has been part of Manhattan's development makeup for at least 100 years,” she says.

Vitullo-Martin says that she’s seen a number of new skyscrapers go up to an enormous amount of controversy, only to be “folded into the fabric of New York’s streetscape.” By contrast, she opines, the original World Trade Center was never successfully incorporated into its surroundings, but New Yorkers nevertheless came to have a romantic view of the towers.

Looking at One57 from an architectural standpoint, Vitullo-Martin expresses surprise at its opposition: “It’s an attempt to do something a little different,” she says, recalling the “cookie cutter” developments of the 1960s and 70s, when cities built uniform, modernist skyscrapers. “I like that it isn’t like everything else.”

By contrast, she finds 432 Park a somewhat unwelcome imposition on New York’s skyline. “Is there any place in the city that you don’t see that blasted building?” she asks. “It’s like one of those velvet paintings where the eyes follow you.”

Ultimately, Vitullo-Martin chalks up the design question to a matter of taste, though she questions whether any of the new buildings really cast long shadows into Central Park. She points out that the Time Warner Center was also “stupendously controversial” when it was constructed, arousing similar concerns about the park. “But would we have been better off if Time Warner hadn't been built?” she says. “Now there are good tax dollars coming in and fabulous retail. It’s money flowing to city coffers.”

But to Jeremiah Moss, who chronicles the city’s changing landscape at Vanishing New York, the supertalls are sources of income for only a few, and he sees their height as a symbol of social stratification. “It’s a sky-high reflection of what’s going on at the street level: vast inequality,” he says. “Manhattan is becoming a gated community, one in which nobody’s home.”

And architecturally, they offer very little to the public, he adds: “Everything beautiful is on the inside. It says, in essence, I don’t care about the people looking at me. I’m completely self-contained.”

Moss says that many of the residents of these developments are foreign billionaires, using the condos as pied-à-terres. And in fact, foreign investment in NYC real estate has increased dramatically in recent years, according to the International Business Times, with $23.5 billion of foreign money going to Manhattan properties.

And the idea of their money trickling down is a fantasy, Moss claims, because they’re only in New York part-time. “They aren’t becoming New Yorkers, and they aren’t participating in the culture and street-level social life.”

Nikolai Fedak, creator of New York YIMBY, dismisses this perspective as “ridiculous.” In fact, he says, the new 57th Street buildings will all include significant retail, and foreign buyers shouldn’t be seen as non-contributors. “They still pay taxes, and the buildings they buy in provide jobs during and after construction,” he points out.

And as for the altered city skyline, Fedak says that supertalls are nothing new: “That's something that's been happening since the rise of the Chrysler and the Empire State,” he says. “In a way, Manhattan's profile is returning to what it used to be in the 1920s, when its tallest buildings were slender and spoke-like.”

He says that concerns about preserving the cityscape as it exists now are silly, since New York has always been changing and will continue to do so. 

Moss, on the other hand, says he wishes people would stop saying that New York is always changing. “It’s not inevitable,” he says of supertall developments. “It’s absolutely the outcome of policy, and policies can be changed. And presently, we’re experiencing gentrification at a rate never seen before.” (Supertalls have found a home on 57th Street due to area zoning rules, as well as the unused air rights of neighboring properties, as Curbed explains here.)

Fedak, however, doesn’t think supertalls will remain solely within the domain of the uber-wealthy. “As the technology to build taller becomes more affordable, we should see the benefits of supertall density spread beyond the echelons of the oligarchs,” he says.

Vitullo-Martin agrees that new feats of engineering are helping to make supertalls more commonplace. “It seems like there is no limit to that kind of innovation,” she says. “But personally I am surprised that people want to live at the top of some of these buildings. I always look for the fire exits wherever I go, because things happen in New York.”


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