By Nan Victoria Munger
If you want to get to Carnegie Hall, you could practice a whole lot. Or, you could simply raise your eyes to the City skyline and head toward the ‘Billionaire Building,’ a 1,005-foot luxury condominium across the street from the legendary concert venue. One57 is one of many megatowers springing up in the City. It will soon be joined on 57th Street by The Steinway Tower and the Central Park Tower. Not counting the World Trade Center’s spire, Central Park Tower will be the tallest building in the City. Grand Central Station will soon be dwarfed by the neighboring colossus One Vanderbilt, which will be just 53 feet shorter than the Empire State Building. On the East River, three 700-foot-plus developments have been approved by the New York City Department of City Planning (DCP).
Such megatowers, driven by commercial demand, technological possibility, and porous zoning, are appearing all over the City. While free-marketers champion these uber-skyscrapers as economically invigorating and aesthetically visionary, many New Yorkers consider them a skyline-defacing blight. The West Village is protected from these projects by preservation laws, but the new megatowers have a broad impact on the entire City. They contribute to gentrification, inflate housing and retail prices in adjacent areas, and overburden City services such as public schools, police and fire departments, and transportation.
Sean Khorsandi is the Interim Executive Director of Landmark West, an organization working to fight the development of megatowers on the Upper West Side. According to Khorsandi, the New York City Department of Buildings (DOB) and the Board of Standards and Appeals (BSA) “have been sort of shrugging [the issue]. They’re like, well, [there are] no height restrictions, so don’t be mad at us, be mad at the zoning law.”
Under the current zoning law, buildings are limited not by height, but by floor area ratio (FAR), meaning that a building’s total floor area cannot exceed a specified multiple of its footprint. When a building does not use its entire allocation, it has leftover floor area, or air rights. Those rights can be sold to neighboring properties. Developers are now gerrymandering huge lots through zoning lot mergers and buying air rights from buildings several blocks away. Khorsandi reports that the air rights from a building on 67th Street are now being applied to a building on 69th Street.
Spaces used for mechanical purposes are not counted in the FAR. Some developers exploit this to get more height. According to Crain’s New York Business, a building planned for 15 East 30th Street includes a 23-foot base and three mechanical floors with 44-foot ceilings. Residential floors begin at 155 feet (15 stories on a normal building), meaning that they will have greater value due to better views. At a DOB hearing on July 25th, a representative opposing the 15 East 30th Street project argued that the 44-foot ceilings are unnecessary and should be considered accessory use. The DOB responded that zoning regulations say nothing about ceiling heights, and that they have “no authority to interpret something that isn’t said.”
Developers are also constructing buildings that are different from the plans they originally submitted. Landmark West reports that 217 West 57th Street was planned for 64 stories, but is now under construction for 95 stories. Such changes are difficult to prevent because they occur after the window for a public review or challenge process has expired. Once the foundation has been laid, the law says that construction can proceed.
Some laws facilitate construction of megatowers that provide affordable housing. The 421a tax abatements provide property tax exemptions if buildings include 20% to 30% affordable units. The Zoning for Quality and Affordability provisions (an update to the City’s Zoning Resolution) allow buildings with affordable housing to have larger FARs. However, the remaining 70% to 80% of high-cost market-rate rentals drives up the median household income of the area. Since affordable housing is defined as housing with annual rents below 30% of the area’s median household income, luxury market-rate rentals allow landlords to charge more for “affordable” units, contributing to the displacement of low-income families.
Despite increased awareness and the public outcry against the development of megatowers, the DOB and DCP have done very little. Landmark West is interested in mandating public oversight on buildings in certain areas, counting double-height floors as double floor area, and limiting amounts of transferred air rights. But many politicians depend on campaign financing from real estate political action committees (PACs), …so they are reluctant to stymie development. Concerned citizens should call their NYC Council representatives and the DCP to express opposition.development.