By Brian J Pape, AIA, LEED-AP
Plans have been approved for the first ever skyscraper in the West Village. At an ‘unprecedented’ height of 420’, Clarkson Square is planned for the full block at Washington Street and West Houston Street.
Greenwich Villagers have had no skyscrapers, and few hi-rise apartment options to live in. Number One Fifth Avenue is perhaps the earliest example among several hi-rises along our major avenues. 1 Fifth Avenue is 350’ to its top pinnacle, and 290’ to the top apartment’s roof, so it does not reach the ‘skyscraper’ definition. (Skyscraper definition: building over 40 stories high, included within the definition of Hi-Rise, which is over 12 stories tall. Mid-rise is 5 to 12 stories high.)
What will be the challenges for the skyscraper at Clarkson Square?
Housing has physical and social elements which provide basic needs of life, such as protection and comfort and well-being. Skyscrapers are but one type of housing, and one that has many detractors.
The Sustainable Cities Collective has listed “7 Reasons Why High-Rises Kill Livability.” Among the negatives for hi-rise housing are the separation of residents from one another, from the street life below, and from contact with physical outdoor activity. The list claims high-rises equal gentrification and inequality since they increase all the land prices around them. Hi-rise housing adds to the level of alienation and isolation, factors that have been proven to negatively impact health and even shorten people’s lives.
Yet, developers and governments around the world continue to build hi-rise apartment blocks, sometimes in devastating monotony, sometimes in awe-inspiring, ever higher feats.
Building a skyscraper is only possible thanks to major technological and mechanical developments, which started over a century ago with passenger elevators, steel framing, and heavy-duty foundation systems. Today, skyscrapers need giant balancing dampers at their roofs, higher-strength steel and high-performance reinforced concrete, to build taller and to counteract the strong wind and gravity forces, and to address other safety concerns. Add to that the difficulty of lifting concrete and materials to that great height, dropping garbage down the long refuse chutes, moving high-speed elevators in closed shafts, and pumping water under high pressures to the top floors for normal plumbing fixture operation.
Recent news outlets have reported complaints of luxury skyscraper occupants during their first years after moving in, which included $millions of damages from plumbing and mechanical failures, elevator malfunctions, leaky exterior walls and creaking interior walls. As the damages piled up, common charges and insurance rates increased dramatically, and other owner fees for amenities’ use have also been recalibrated to make up for losses. Engineers familiar with these projects say these troubles are not limited to the 1400’ tall condo at 432 Park Avenue, which actually sits on 56th Street, or other supertalls on Billionaire’s Row along the south end of Central Park.
The challenge for any A/E team, developers, contractors, and managers are the same as noted above, while meeting code and budget and working space constraints. Experienced architect/engineer (A/E) firms study their skyscraper designs in sophisticated wind-tunnels and computer analytical programs to fine-tune the shape of the buildings and placement of structural members. Faceted facades that face multiple directions can contribute to less structural material to resist wind forces, partly because it breaks up the wind vectors into smaller counteracting eddies. Straight, boxy forms do not seem to perform as well.
Other developers had run into controversy due to designs for a “poor door” reserved for the ‘affordable’ apartments, while the luxury units got a separate lobby. Clarkson’s towers, designed by CookFox Architects, seem to utilize common lobbies for all units, but there will be two towers, one along West Street overlooking the Hudson River, the other smaller one facing east on Washington Street.
The challenges for the Clarkson Square skyscraper, besides overcoming community opposition, have been daunting. The 2013 amendment to the Hudson River Park Act of 1998, and a Special Hudson River Park District were invented to allow this type of development. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer spoke to the City Planning Commission’s public hearing in 2016 and critically called for major alterations to the proposed rezoning, to limit air-right transfers and increase affordable housing units. As-of-right, the developer could have built a 438-room hotel, office, and retail building of 48 stories, approximately 630 feet tall. But even with the new rezoning, to get to that skyscraper height for the luxury residential project, 200,000 SF of extra floor area had to be purchased from Pier 40 across West Street, and the developers, Atlas Capital Group and Westbrook Partners, had to include 30% ‘affordable’ housing units into the towers, bringing the total to 1.7million square feet of floor area.
Then there’s the challenge of building in a flood plain, on landfilled ground that was once under the Hudson River, along a busy highway. Excavation and construction has not yet started on the barren, fenced site.
Brian J. Pape is a LEED-AP “Green” architect consulting in private practice, serves on the Manhattan District 2 Community Board Landmarks Committee and Quality of Life Committee, is Co-chair of the American Institute of Architects NY Design for Aging Committee, is a member of AIANY Historic Buildings Committee, and is a journalist, especially on architecture subjects.