Supertall, superluxury apartment buildings changing New York's skyline, attract brickbats

432 Park Avenue is the tallest residential skyscraper in the US. -- PHOTO: AFP
432 Park Avenue is the tallest residential skyscraper in the US. -- PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (AFP) - It's a US$95 million (S$122.6 million) view from the tallest residential tower in the Americas. But the newest addition to Manhattan's iconic skyline has attracted a cloud of controversy.

Still under construction and with United States flags pinned patriotically to its shell, 432 Park Avenue soars above Midtown, casting a shadow over Central Park and designer boutiques on Madison Avenue.

At 425.5m, the tower by Uruguayan "starchitect" Rafael Vinoly is higher than the Empire State Building - but eclipsed by the One World Trade Center, which rises to 540m, including a 125m antenna.

The Los Angeles-based developers CIM Group have already sold the top penthouse for US$95 million and 50 per cent of the apartments, which start at US$17 million, before opening in spring 2015.

The view - marketed as a helicopter view - offers vistas that stretch from Central Park to the Atlantic Ocean and Connecticut.

And it is not alone.

A string of super-tall, super-luxury buildings have sprung up and are still in development, changing the city skyscape forever.

"They appeal to a very specific buyer pool and that buyer pool has proven to be very aggressive and very deep," said Mr Robert Knakal, one of New York's top real estate brokers and chairman of Massey Knakal Realty Services.

But not everyone's happy.

A recent op-ed in the New York Observer complained about "hellish experience", "dynamite blasts" and "incessant screeching" endured by residents and office workers from mega projects in development.

Opponents complain that city regulations provide no public review process in Midtown, that historic buildings are being demolished in their wake and that billionaires squeeze everyone else out.

"I think it's very controversial," said Mr Alex Herrera, director of technical services at The New York Landmarks Conservancy. "We have never seen anything like this before."

The 1920s Drake Hotel, where Frank Sinatra, Muhammed Ali, Judy Garland and Jimi Hendrix stayed, was torn down to make way for 432 Park Avenue.

Mr Herrera calls mega towers "ghost ships" - bought as investments by international billionaires, who visit only a couple of weeks a year, and so tall that they cast shadows across Central Park.

In a few years, 432 Park Avenue will be eclipsed as work progresses on a taller tower being built by developers Extell round the corner on West 57th Street.

Extell has already built a 90-storey condo designed by famed French architect Christian de Portzamparc on the same street.

Master piano makers Steinway and Sons are leaving West 57th Street next year after selling their 1925 flagship showroom, where Rachmaninoff practiced, to JDS Development Group for US$46 million.

"It's definitely changing our skyline and it's certainly changing the character of 57th Street, which used to be a very quaint street of art galleries and piano stores," said Mr Herrera.

"Now, it's a street of billionaires who don't really live there."

City voters last year elected Democrat Mayor Bill De Blasio on a ticket of greater equality after income gaps widened during the 12-year tenure of billionaire-philanthropist Michael Bloomberg.

Mr De Blasio has an ambitious affordable housing plan in the wake of middle-class professionals leaving Manhattan and while an estimated 21 per cent of New York city residents live in poverty.

Neither is New York a capital city and while historic buildings are preserved, it's a business city driven by profits.

Mr Herrera wants 57th Street landmarked to protect the other historic buildings. "What we're looking for is a balance," he said.

But Mr Knakal insists there is a balance and credits the city planning commission with doing an "excellent job" on zoning.

And even if billionaire residents do not stay all year, they still pay real estate taxes and do not consume public services, he says.

"Folks who are residing in those apartments probably spend more money and inject more dollars into the local economy than the average New Yorker does in the whole year."

But members of the public are at best divided over the expansion. Many say the super rich have earned their right to live and buy whatever they want, seeing the skyscrapers as a status symbol.

Others feel alienated by the overt display of wealth, pushing out public-sector workers and creative workers on tighter budgets.

"I think it's absolutely ridiculous to spend that kind of money to live there," said wealth advisor Lawrence Bogar, who works in the city but lives across the river in New Jersey.

"You could spend the money on far better properties."

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