Manhattanites are used to tall buildings. Many live in them. But many of those who live in them are finding common cause with the residents of shorter stuff as new megatowers arise. The supertalls make mere tall buildings look like pygmies, while low-rise apartments and townhouses look like ants. That’s just the buildings. Their inhabitants, venturing out onto the sidewalks, must feel like microbes.
The effect of tall buildings on the quality of life in the city’s streets was recognized with the passage of its pathbreaking 1916 zoning law, which mandated setbacks in the massing of tall buildings so that light could get through to the street. Naturally, as the ways around zoning leapfrog each new round of zoning, buildings here have grown taller and taller, blotting out the sun and generating a wind-tunnel effect that buffets the disenfranchised user of the sidewalk environment. The latest rush of developers to out-leap each other into the sky is only making matters worse.
Twenty towers of more than 900 feet are planned or under construction in the city. Fourteen break the 1,000-foot mark. The vicinity of 57th Street is the locus for residential supertalls, with 432 Park Ave., at 1,396 feet, the latest to be completed. It is also considered a super-thin — a designation that kicks in when height is more than 10 times the width: 432 Park boasts a 15-1 height-to-width ratio; 111 West 57th, under construction, will be 23-1. Engineers may shrink from revealing what architects deny, but the combination of super-tall and super-thin looks super-fragile.
And hold on to your hats! Sutton Place, known for its quiet elegance, may be next in line for belittlement. Permits have been issued for developer Bauhouse Group to raze three six-story buildings, 428-432 East 58th St., right around the corner. The British “starchitect” Sir Norman Foster has been hired to design a super-tall with 100-plus residential units reaching as high as 1,000 feet. Renderings depict a narrow, squarish tower of glass panes framed by thin pilasters and spandrels, rising straight up some 90 stories. A smattering of corner and mid-facade inset balconies are festooned by Foster’s imaginative artists with verdure.
Sovereign, an apartment tower of 47 stories on Sutton Place, was the first major assault on the neighborhood back in 1975. The architecture critic Paul Goldberger described the Sovereign as “brutally destructive of the scale of 58th Street and Sutton Place.”
But the district has no height limit, so if Bauhouse can find enough investment partners to help carry the project’s debt — or if it is auctioned off to deeper pockets, or if property owner Gamma Real Estate can re-acquire control and resell — it could grow even taller than the 100 stories of “ultra-luxury” units initially imagined.
“This is the first time that a billionaire’s tower is going up in a residential neighborhood,” Bauhouse director Joseph P. Beninati told the New York Times. In all his braggadocio, Beninati seems unaware that he may have bitten off more than he can chew. Sutton Place is not without clout. The East River Fifties Alliance was founded last year to fight the super-tall, and has proposed rezoning the neighborhood’s current R-10 designation, under which it is the last residential district in Manhattan without any height limit.
“It’s like sticking a Freedom Tower in a residential area,” Lisa Mercurio, a member of the East River Fifties Alliance, told the New York Times. “This building is an investment bank for overseas oligarchs. It’s not meant to house real people in the neighborhood. What happens to the environment when the skyline is so cluttered up that the sun can’t shine down to the ground?”
For the real people who live and work here, an increased gnashing of teeth is in order. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s supine posture toward developers is playing out in the form of two city initiatives – Zoning for Quality and Affordability (ZQA), which, with its Orwellian title, seeks a general up-zoning of the city, and a bill to halt landmark designations (Intro 775), making it easier to demolish beautiful historic buildings in order to build huge ugly slabs (straight or twisted) on their sites. How this might translate into more affordable housing in Manhattan is a stretch — if not a stretcher — even for the mayor’s self-proclaimed populism.
The neighbors should leverage Bauhouse’s own troubles to jujitsu the megatower plan. The East River Fifties’ rezoning plan is now officially submitted, and anger is rising throughout the city at the mayor’s truckling to developers with an attack on city neighborhoods thinly disguised as a quest for affordable living. Throw in the sluggish Chinese economy, volatility on Wall Street, the oversupply of residential units in high-rises, the potential flat-lining of the market for buyers and the resulting skittishness among lenders, and this project could be history.
Sutton Place has sent packing even bigger developers sniffing around their neighborhood. The last time was in 2000. The developer, who ended up building a 72-story tower ten blocks south, was named Donald Trump.