The Shadows Megatowers Cast on a Light-Starved City

Courtesy of the Municipal Art Society of New York

BY SYDNEY PEREIRA | As a marathon runner, Lisa Mercurio runs in Central Park as often as she can since she lives just a mile from the 840-acre park. For her, Central Park is an escape from the city. Park-goers are surrounded by beauty, she said, and sometimes where you are in the city becomes unrecognizable.

“I appreciate the fact that you can go into Central Park and have one of these open space experiences that it was intended for at the time of its creation,” Mercurio said.

But that experience is changing as Manhattan’s skyline shapeshifts into something often unrecognizable, with megatowers reaching heights that historically were unfathomable. Mercurio, a board member of the East River 50s Alliance, and other community activists call megatower development the “creep” — the steady development of “supertalls,” especially in Midtown. New towers are considered supertalls when they exceed 984 feet (300 meters) in height. A particular hotspot for such development is just south of Central Park.

“You see one crane right after another,” Mercurio said of her recent runs through Central Park. “It’s like a free-for-all in the spirit of real estate development.”

A rendering of a south view from Central Park of the shadows cast by currently proposed developments projected through 2025 (above) versus those cast as of 2014. | Courtesy of the Municipal Art Society of New York

In as-of-right zoning districts that sidestep any public review process whatsoever, Mercurio said, “that represents trouble for the people of New York.”

The “siege” of out-of-context megatowers — as Mercurio describes the rush of development — has effects beyond changing the nature of the historic neighborhoods on the blocks they are built on. Advocates are concerned how these towers will cast shadows onto Central Park and other smaller parks and playgrounds — stifling their usability and slashing the number of days it’s warm enough to enjoy them. Without sunshine, the very nature of a park can change.

“It may well be too cold to be in the park,” said George Janes, the owner of George M. Janes & Associates, a planning firm that provides zoning expertise. “To me, that’s the most important reason to care about shadows in the park.”

South of Central Park, one megatower stands out at 432 Park Ave. and E. 57th St. The slender supertall is 1,396 feet, completed in 2015 and developed by CIM Group. But another supertall to the west of it is catching up: the Steinway Tower at 111 West 57th St. had reached more than half of its eventual height of 1,438 feet as of March, according to JDS Development Group. The Steinway Tower was one of eight high-rises across the city where contractors were recently charged with a multi-million dollar wage theft and insurance fraud scheme (see page 5).

Another high-profile building, owned by the Kushner Companies, 666 Fifth Ave., at E. 53rd St., has long been under discussion for redevelopment as a 1,400-foot tower. One 57th St. reaches more than 1,000 feet. Central Park Tower, also on W. 57th St., where just last week a security guard was killed by a fallen glass panel, is expected to rise above all of them to a height of 1,550 feet. The building, also known as the Nordstrom Tower, is being developed by Extell Development Company.

Community activists are asking how these supertalls are even being allowed. Zoning experts including Janes point to loopholes, outdated zoning regulations, and a lack of transparency in any public review that takes place. One major loophole for supertall development involves technological advances as well as construction sleights-of-hand that allow devevlopers to better exploit the zoning limits on the “floor area ratio,” which is the ratio between the total floor area of the building and the size of the lot upon which it is built.

A 2012 view from the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art looking toward Central Park South overlaid with towers proposed through 2025. | Photo by Phil Davis/ Courtesy of the Municipal Art Society of New York

By building on only a small portion of the total lot, developers can maximize height — hence the super-slender buildings such as 432 Park Avenue and the Steinway Tower. In addition, Janes explained, the floor-to-floor heights in a building aren’t regulated under the 1961 zoning laws, which means that for any given building height the total floor area can be reduced by increasing the space between each floor. The effect is to maximize the allowable building height given the applicable zoned FAR limit.

For apartment buildings, the taller the building the better for expensive luxury views, and increasing the floor-to-floor heights maximizes the luxury delivered. Some new towers are also creating “voids” of space worth hundreds of feet — some housing building mechanicals, others with stilts supporting the higher construction, but many far larger than necessary if necessary at all.

According to Janes’ calculations, Central Park Tower has mechanical floors and voids making up 27 percent of the tower’s height, with one void 100 feet tall.

Rapid construction technology change explains why existing zoning regulations have been unable to limit the development of supertalls. Since the 1960s, engineers have mastered the construction of taller buildings — aided in part by maximizing floor-to-floor heights ratios — while the costs associated with doing so have dropped sharply, according to Janes.

“We never thought that that would ever happen, so it was never regulated,” Janes said. “So now we have this crazy market. You have important changes to building technologies that allow these things to happen in a cost-effective way.”

In March, the Upper West Side’s Community Board 7 pointed out these loopholes and highlighted two supertalls currently in progress: at 200 Amsterdam Ave. and W. 69th St. and at 50 W. 66th St. The board wrote that these buildings and others are “jarringly out of context.”

“Our community board said this is ridiculous,” said Sheila Kendrick, a member of Save Central Park NYC, which is focused on the dangers posed by the increasing breadth of building shadows. “Just because the technology allows developers and cost to developers [allows them] to do this — it doesn’t mean that we should roll over and take it.”

CB7 noted “novel tactics” used by developers to skirt the original intention of the city’s zoning text, including large voids and mechanical spaces that are taller than necessary; apartment ceilings up to 20 feet high; gerrymandering open space to create a large single zoning lot that minimizes a building’s FAR; and transferring development rights across large distances within the city. They called on the City Planning Commission to amend zoning regulations and on elected officials to address this issue as urgent.

“Thank God our community board put this resolution in place,” Kendrick said.

Another concern — specific to the shadows issue across Central Park and other pockets of parks and playgrounds — is shoddy shadow and light studies carried out during any required environmental review process. These studies aren’t always adequate, in part because the reviews are fundamentally self-disclosure documents, according to some land use experts. Developers can create a certain narrative in these studies, and often their definition as to what’s “sun-sensitive” differs from what the community may believe.

“You can always wordsmith it to say that, ‘Well, yes, there will be a shadow, but it won’t be on this particular area,’” said Thomas Devaney, senior director of land use and planning at the Municipal Arts Society.

MAS released a report late last year detailing how extensive shadows from new high rises could become across the city, including in Central Park. The report described how just 10 percent of new projects go through a public review process; the rest are developed in as-of-right districts. Even on those with public review, according to the report, developments slip through the cracks and end up being out of context with the neighborhood, drastically changing the streetscape and skyline.

Devaney and Marcel Negret, MAS’ senior project manager for preservation and planning, emphasized that the group is not anti-development. Its report recommends closing loopholes and increasing transparency all while holding the city and developers accountable.

“We’re just seeking a process that is more inclusive and reflects a public discourse or debate on how the city moves forward,” Negret said.

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