Renewed Push to Focus on New Construction’s Shadows

Supertall buildings sprouting up on the south side of Central Park. | Photo by Sydney Pereira

BY SYDNEY PEREIRAUpper West Side City Councilmember Mark Levine is betting that his proposal for a task force to study the impact of building shadows will win support on his second try, three years after the measure languished in the Council.

The bill — which Levine reintroduced two weeks ago — would create a task force to study the impact that new building construction would have on public parks. That task force would issue a report with recommendations for addressing possible shadow impacts on park spaces and the kind of development that should be permitted.

“We understand that we need to continue building in the city, but we can do it in a way that accounts for sunlight,” Levine said. “My point in putting forward this bill is that protection of our green spaces has been totally left out of how the city has planned the built environment.”

Levine’s Upper West Side colleague Helen Rosenthal and the Upper East Side’s Ben Kallos, both fighting tall buildings in their own districts, have also signed on.

Speaker Corey Johnson’s spokesperson Breeana Mulligan said only that Johnson “will monitor the bill” through the legislative process.

The mayor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

The legislation was inspired by a growing concern in Midtown and on the Upper East and West Sides about how new “supertalls” are impacting Central Park, especially at its south end — including Extell’s 1,000-foot building, One57, at 157 W. 57th St. and Seventh Ave., completed in 2014, CIM Group’s 1,400-foot tower at 432 Park Ave. and E. 57th St., completed in 2015, and JDS Development Group’s Steinway Tower at 111 West 57th St., currently under construction and expected to rise to more than 1,400 feet.

“We need to urgently equip ourselves with better zoning tools,” Layla Law-Gisiko, the chair of Community Board 5’s Central Park Sunshine Task Force, said in a written statement. “A task force will help identify the best mitigating solutions to protect parks from shadow encroachment.”

Upper West Side Councilmember Mark Levine. | Photo by Ed Reed/ Office of the Mayor

In 2013, the Central Park Conservancy told Politico that shadows hadn’t impacted its horticulture. But this week, the Conservancy voiced interest in the issues raised by Levine’s bill. Though a spokesperson wouldn’t answer questions about how increased shadows have or have not impacted the park, the Conservancy said it supports more research on the matter. 

“We are committed to preserving the Central Park experience,” spokesperson Simone Silverbush said by email. “We think that more detailed information on the effect of shadows on city spaces will add to the public discourse. We support additional research on this topic.”

Three years ago, City Planning didn’t support the effort, Crain’s reported, and the then-director Carl Weisbrod noted that slender, taller towers have less impact than wider, squatter buildings because their shadows move more swiftly across the park.

The Real Estate Board of New York echoed the sentiment in a 2015 report.

“What we have seen from these shadow analyses have been that in the wintertime, you have buildings casting long shadows for longer periods of the day just because that’s where we’re located on Earth,” said Paimaan Lodhi, senior vice president of REBNY.

Summer, when it is peak park usage time, the shadows move more quickly but provide “a great deal of shade for the elderly and for others who are seeking relief from the sun,” Lodhi said.

Levine argues that 2018 will provoke a different public discussion of the issue.

“We do think that the climate has changed,” Levine said. “[The towers] were plans that people who were watching could evaluate and the scale of those buildings scared a lot who care about [Central Park], but now those buildings are up, and it’s not hypothetical.”

Levine said that during the cooler months, the amount of sunlight makes for the difference between whether a park is used at all or not.

“Very few people [are] sitting on park benches in shady areas,” he said. “They’re flocking to the sunlight because it’s where it’s warm enough to really be able to enjoy the park.”

The bill would establish a task force with the commissioners of city departments including Buildings, Environmental Protection, Housing Preservation and Development, and the City Planning Commission. Each year, the task force would issue a report to the mayor and the City Council with recommendations on dealing with possible consequences from shadows, “including but not limited to changes to planned construction projects,” according to the bill’s language.

Levine said he would consider amending the bill to require the task force to build an inventory of tiny neighborhood pocket parks and over how much area as well as how long those parks are shaded.

Explicitly quantifying shadows’ time and square footage on every park is something Levine wants to discuss at the bill’s hearing, which has yet to be scheduled.

Levine said the task force could measure “in a quantifiable way the current shadow impact of buildings and using that as the yardstick to measure our success in protecting parks.”

REBNY argues that policy goals like generating construction jobs and creating affordable housing are higher priorities compared to the impact of shadows on smaller parks.

“You have to balance policy goals,” Lodhi said. “You’re talking about building affordable housing or just housing in general, which the city needs. That’s a very high priority. You’re talking about good-paying jobs. That should be a very high priority.”

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