New York's shifting skyline

Supertall residential towers in the works are rapidly changing the city's profile

NEW YORK • As recently as two years ago, only five towers in New York City topped 304.8m. Now, there are that many "supertall" towers in the works on 57th Street alone, and roughly two dozen either under construction or on the drawing boards across Manhattan and in Brooklyn.

The city has not seen such an epochal shift on the skyline since the post-war boom and, before that, the Jazz Age.

This upheaval, fuelled by advances in engineering and an influx of foreign money, and enabled by lenient zoning codes, has left residents, politicians and developers themselves scrambling to adapt to the city's changing profile.

The New York skyline is always in flux and not everyone has been happy about it. In the past, most of the consternation was directed at office towers. Now, though, as the city competes for verticality with Beijing, Dubai and London, residential towers are reshaping the skyline.

The residential tower at 432 Park Avenue in New York. PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

Flip through a high-end magazine right now and you will see page after page of ads for new luxury developments in New York, many of them for towers on Billionaires' Row, the area between the southern edge of Central Park and 56th Street, that push above the clouds and the madness of the city. Those ads, however, tend to ignore the towering competition down the block. The views they proffer do not show the nearby buildings already reaching skyward or give any indication that there will soon be others. Whether the omissions are by accident or design depends on whom you ask.

"It's like The Who song," said Mr Jonathan Miller, president of the appraisal firm Miller Samuel. "You can see for miles and miles and miles. Until you look into your neighbour's building."

At the launch party for 520 Park Avenue recently, above the herringbone floors and next to the well-equipped kitchen inside the showroom, renderings of the future tower, at 60th Street, hung like works of art. One looked south- east, as if photographed by an angel (or more likely a drone) floating over the park. It captured the Bloomberg Building, the future 520 Park Avenue itself, the Citicorp Center, the GM Building and even the Chrysler spire in the distance.

One thing was conspicuously missing, even though it has been a major part of the skyline for almost three years: 432 Park Avenue, between 56th and 57th streets. A broker explained that the photo used in the rendering had been taken before the 426m tower, the second-tallest building in the city at the moment, had begun.

For 111 West 57th Street, just off the Avenue of the Americas and planned at 435m, the advertising is close-cropped, heightening the drama and detail of the saw- toothed terracotta tower and its relationship to the park. One57 is pictured, but 432 Park is missing here too, as is a proposed redevelopment of the Park Lane Hotel, set to rise at least 304.8m on Fifth Avenue near Central Park South.

"We're not forecasters, so any building that's not built yet wouldn't be a factor for us," said Mr Michael Stern, founder and managing partner of JDS Development, which is building 111 West 57th Street. "I actually really like 432. It makes my building look less intimidating."

Mr Gary Barnett, founder of Extell Development, is responsible for One57, where about a quarter of the 92 units remain unsold, two years after completion. Those apartments that have sold have set records, including a US$100.4 million (S$141 million) penthouse.

Mr Barnett is also overseeing the Central Park Tower at the corner of Broadway and 57th Street now under construction; at 472m, it would be the city's tallest building, were it not for the World Trade Center's 124m spire.

"Big as these buildings are, most of them do not have very many units, maybe there's a few hundred on the whole stretch," Mr Barnett said. "It might take a little longer for them to sell, but there is certainly demand for these buildings."

These slender cloud-busters would not have been built without the confluence of new technologies and wealthy buyers seeking a Manhattan address. Superstrong concrete and new wind testing made possible buildings like 432 Park, which, at 8.6 sq m in plan, is 15 times as tall as it is wide. In effect, developers now need only a lot the size of a brownstone or three to build a tower, rather than much of a block, as with the 381m Empire State Building, which when it opened in 1931, was the tallest building in the world. And many areas have no restrictions on building heights.

The Municipal Art Society is among the numerous civic groups challenging the rise of the towers as a distortion of half-century-old zoning codes that did not anticipate the ability to build so high. By buying neighbours' air rights and building up rather than out, developers have created what the society has called the Accidental Skyline.

"As the technology has improved, our civic processes haven't," said Ms Mary Rowe, the group's executive vice-president.

Whether creating subway overcrowding or shadows on public spaces, these high-rises could have unintended consequences on the cityscape, and not just in Midtown Manhattan.

Beyond the two dozen buildings in the works, the art society has identified areas ranging from 125th Street to Second Avenue on the Upper East Side, the Flatiron district and Downtown Brooklyn that are ripe for development. The society wants City Hall to intervene.

The administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio, in its effort to encourage development for the sake of creating new affordable housing, has so far declined to take up the issue of updating this aspect of the zoning codes. Although numerous Manhattan City Council members want to restrict the sales of air rights that make these supertall buildings possible, the city planning commissioner, Mr Carl Weisbrod, reaffirmed their value at a Council hearing last month.

"This often leads to a more interesting streetscape and pedestrian experience," he said, "as well as an incredibly dynamic, iconic skyline that is the envy of the world."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 28, 2015, with the headline 'New York's shifting skyline'. Print Edition | Subscribe