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Manhattan’s future lurking in shadows?

Manhattan in shadows

 

It was a dark and stormy night. So runs the classic opening line of the worst of all possible novels. Well, in Manhattan it may be a dark and stormy day. Who knows what shadows lurk in the streets of Manhattan? The New York Times knows.

The Times’s story “The Struggle for Light and Air in America’s Largest City,” by Quoctrung Bui and Jeremy White, has a video loop that tracks shadows crossing Madison Square Park during a typical stretch of daylight. The story also contains a map of Manhattan. On it you can pinpoint the percentage of daylight that filters into any given street or plaza or park in the city.

Bui and White write:

In most parts of America, sunlight is not debated the way it is in New York, where the citys thirst for living space, working space and economic growth has turned the sun into a virtual commodity.

 

The map with their article is a tour de force. However, it leaves out the shadows doomed to darken the Manhattan of the future.

Urban places need balance on building height

Andres Duany, the celebrated urbanist, argues that one factor in great streets is the proportion of road width to building height. A street that’s too wide lined with buildings too low lacks the feeling of enclosure that makes urban places pleasant. A narrow street lined with tall buildings that let in little light creates the other extreme. It’s a feeling of being trapped in a box. Manhattan’s streets are more likely to make the latter urbanistic error.

 

Well, in Manhattan it may be a dark and stormy day.

Last year marked the centennial of the first law designed to prevent skyscrapers from blocking too much sunlight. Forcing developers in New York City to set back the upper stories of their buildings reduced the amount of time the streets below were cast in shadow.

 

New York in shadows

Midtown Manhattan in 1932, after 16 years under zoning that required setbacks in buildings above certain heights.

 

After half a century, buildings designed in the wedding-cake style festooned the New York’s skyline. Then the city changed the law to allow towers to drive straight up in the sky as long as they occupied less than a certain percentage of the parcel, leaving space for a plaza. This had the same practical effect on light reaching the streets, so long as the towers remained relatively modest.

Supertalls to be followed by megatalls

Of course, that time has now passed and the next decades will see the rise of supertalls and, soon, megatalls – respectively, towers over 300 meters (984 feet) or over 600 meters (1,968 feet). So states the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat. That’s about 80 stories or 160 stories, depending a building’s ceiling heights.

 

As of this June there were 20 towers under construction and 27 more proposed that would be over 600 feet tall. These include one megatall (the Hudson Spire) and 20 supertalls. Needless to say, they all would throw some pretty serious shadows. If it is of any consolation, an overcast day throws all of Manhattan into shadow. But no, it is not of any consolation, and that is why many neighborhood organizations and preservation groups are trying to push back against the growing threat of unnatural shadows.

Natural shadows versus unnatural shadows

Natural shadow is thrown by the rising and setting sun, heralding the day and the night. Nobody objects to those shadows, and no legislation could do anything about them. Which is fine. The shadow thrown by trees we call shade, and nobody objects to that. But the unnatural shadows of today’s and tomorrow’s up-thrusting hubristic towers are something else.

 

And of course it’s not only Manhattan. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker just approved loosening the laws against shadows across the Boston Common and Public Garden. It will enable a 775-foot tower whose shadows would pierce both. Skyscrapers are going up at a rapid pace in cities across the nation and the world – London faces a blitz of 455 tower proposals.

In most places, shadows cast by most buildings are a blessing. The shade of buildings on one side of a typical street blocks the glare of the sun. Some cross to the shady side of the street to seek surcease; others cross to the sunny side of the street, seeking the sun’s sustenance, or to engage in vertical sunbathing. To walk in a city is to embrace the constant adjustment of one’s enjoyment permitted by such choices. This choice is denied by the presence of too many too tall buildings.

The lesson of Greenacre Park

When the patrons of Greenacre Park, a pocket park on East 51st Street, learned that  their little piece of heaven would be cast in afternoon dark by the shadows of proposed buildings newly allowed under Mayor de Blasio’s plan to upzone Midtown East, they said no way – as they had under similar threat back in 1980.

 

Neighbors along the south edge of Central Park created, through their Community Board 5, a Sunshine Task Force several years ago.  It’s missions was to engage in fight the shadowy forces of upzoning. “How have glass buildings become so opaque?” wondered the task force’s David Diamond at one of it early meetings as described by Curbed New York.

 

He referred to the blackout of information about the ownership of proposed buildings and their condominiums. For a long time, however, defenders of glass-box architecture, including towers, have argued that glass buildings are not opaque physically, either.  They reflect the sky and blend into their surroundings.

 

How ridiculous! Defending a building on the grounds that it will hide in plain sight is not a ringing endorsement of its architecture. Such fatuousness reflects the ethos of developers who are so confident that city officials have their backs that they do not care if their defense makes no sense, whether in regard to lack of transparency or to shadows. If the little people don’t want big buildings, let them eat cake!

Can New Yorkers fight off the shadows?

City Council member Ben Kallos reflected much local sentiment after Community Board 6 voted unanimously to limit a supertall proposed for East 58th Street. He said, “I think we’ve finally moved it from … trying to attack one building to making it about the entire city just being sick and tired of these billionaire buildings coming in and putting the rest of the neighborhoods in shadow.”

 

Unwanted shadows represent merely a facet of the widespread objection to the threat of unwanted towers. Those who oppose plans for new towers see the many risks they pose to the quality of life in Manhattan.

The towers will make streets more crowded for pedestrians and traffic. The higher density will erode personal safety. The historical charm of many neighborhoods will be eroded by these behemoths, be they fat or skinny. Beautiful old buildings will be replaced by sterile new ones. Their shadows will not mask their aesthetic flaws. They will block the play of light and shade that makes so many older buildings enchanting. Fancy units in the new towers are not for residential but investment use.  The absence of upscale residents upends the most basic case for towers as economic development – supposedly providing new business for local entrepreneurs.

 

The historical charm of many neighborhoods will be eroded by these behemoths, be they fat or skinny.

City leaders not listening

Worst of all is the severing of the city’s leadership from the concerns of its citizens. This is illustrated by the ease with which municipal officials, including the mayor, ignore powerful arguments against towers as inimical to the quality of life.

 

The opposition to more towers is perhaps most powerfully manifested by something as basic as a concern that shadows from towers will rob us of healthy daylight. Those who fear this darkness at noon play an important role in the coalition to save the quality of life in Manhattan.

 

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David Brussat

David Brussat edits the Architecture Here and There blog (https://architecturehereandthere.com), promoting traditional and criticizing modernist work, mostly in architecture, but also in other arts. In 2002, he received the Arthur Ross Award for architectural writing, bestowed by the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art (then Classical America).