By Brian J. Pape
There is a phenomena here in the city that is similar to suburbanites seeking a rural experience by buying a house on the fringes of a new subdivision, reveling in the views of the countryside, only to find the next row of houses built will block their views and crowd their neighborhood. Is it naive to think more development won’t come to a place where the buyers are just moving in?
In Manhattan, marketing materials for new skyscraper residential towers tend to ignore any nearby towers that block their views, and they certainly won’t show prospects any future towers that may compromise their views. This is a high-priced game—sales rates for new construction exceed $2000 per square foot, with some as high as $10,000/SF. Height and views are the ultimate status symbols.
It seems only when a third party, like the Municipal Arts Society of New York, puts together renderings of present and planned buildings (as shown in a recent Times article) do we get a sense of the impact new projects will have on a neighborhood.
The Skyscraper Museum’s director Carol Willis has said it’s important to understand the forces driving the pursuit of super tall buildings in NYC. Propelled by zoning laws that in some parts of the city have no height limit, and the all-important purchase of air-rights from neighboring buildings, developers look to engineers to make tall buildings on a small footprint technically feasible. Current zoning laws often require setbacks to allow more sunlight to penetrate to city streets, but some variations of zoning allow shear vertical walls if they are set back from the street.
New super slender buildings being built in Manhattan rival almost any in the world for their slenderness ratio of up to 1:23, a ratio of width to height. Many of these exceed 1000 feet in height. Slenderness may minimize the shadows cast on streets blocks away, but the base of the structure must form the streetscape, and relate to pedestrians primarily looking at the lower facades.
The slenderest super tall buildings in the works are the Steinway at 111 W 57 Street, a new building at 157 W 57 Street, and another new building 432 Park Avenue, claiming to be the tallest North American residential building. These surround the southern end of Central Park, and critics claim the shadows cast there will greatly reduce the quality of life for New Yorkers. (See sidebar for more details.)
A new proposal—the Zoning for Quality and Affordability (ZQA)—would increase height limits for new residential construction city wide. The increase would be a minimum of 5 feet, but could be much higher in some areas. These increases apply regardless of previous zoning, such as a contextual zone, or if the area is a designated historic district.
There is a place for the super tall, but not every historic district needs to succumb to mega-development in order for the city to grow, any more than we would consider developing our parks and green spaces to meet growth demands. What makes West Village so interesting to walk around in is the variety of active storefronts offered and the diversity of uses and treatments at the pedestrian level—not the height.
In the West Village, previous zoning had allowed tall slender buildings (especially hotels and dormitories), until a rezoning took that possibility away in 2005. The
150 Charles condo site allowed a 31-story tower set back from the street, but architect CookFox chose to design it at 15-stories, similar to the Superior Ink Condo, Westbeth Artists Coop, the Meier buildings, and 1 Morton Square, among others in the immediate area.
Are we going to go backwards and allow this new zoning to destroy the neighborhood character? This must be fought, just as Jane Jacobs, Doris Diether, and many others fought for the Village in the 1960’s.
Brian J. Pape—AIA, LEED-AP, and LRES—is a Historic Preservation & Green Architect located at 130 Barrow St., Ste.213.