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A tall tower threatens to darken New York’s Central Park

Sally Herships Nov 22, 2013
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Seven new buildings are going up in Midtown Manhattan. Many of these luxury towers will be within just blocks of Central Park. And that proximity has some area residents concerned about the buildings’ impact on the open space and light in the park. 

On 58th Street between Broadway and Seventh Avenue there’s a huge gap where a new building is soon to be built. The excavation site stretches down the block and the emptiness — smack in the middle of Manhattan’s crowded Midtown — is so pronounced that the street looks like it’s missing a tooth. But when construction is over the new tower will be taller than the Empire State building, reportedly the tallest residential tower in the country. 

Standing across the street from the site, Layla Law-Gisiko, chair of the Landmarks Committee for Manhattan Community Board 5, says she’s concerned about the impact on the neighborhood. “The thing that you understand is that right now we see a lot of light, and a lot of sky,” she says. In five years, this is gone. This is gone.” 

The community, says Law-Gisiko, wasn’t able to review the plans for the new building, so she says she has no idea what it will look like — only that it will be tall. The non-profit Environmental Simulation Center says the building’s shadows will stretch nearly a half a mile — as far as the ice skating rink in Central Park. Potentially more importantly to cold-weather park-goers, those shadows will linger. Law-Gisiko says she’s concerned about the impact of the buildings on the park, and on the people who use it.   

“Is light and air a public resource?” she asks. “Or is it a resource to be used by one single developer?”

The answer to the question comes down to what are called air rights, the right to build in the space above a building. And as long as the developer owns those rights, which can be worth millions,  there doesn’t have to be a public review process.  

“New York is a city and it goes vertical,” notes Bob Shapiro, an air rights broker and president of City Center Real Estate. “Zoning, like the constitution,” he adds, “has to be flexible. Neighborhoods change.” Who, questions Shapiro, would have ever thought that Manhattan’s Meatpacking District would become a hot retail destination? 

Shapiro’s office, a penthouse on the other side of Central Park, looks out over low rise residential buildings. A penthouse in one of the not yet completed super-towers on 57th street recently sold for more than $90 million dollars. But Shapiro says while that represents a windfall for the developer who owned those air rights, it’s also good business for the city.

“Usually for every one square foot of new building you build the city gets 15 dollars a foot in taxes,” he says. 

Residents may not want tall buildings in their neighborhoods, but Josiah Madar, a research fellow with the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy at NYU, says that can make housing in their neighborhoods more expensive. If it’s hard to build new housing, as the population grows so does the price for apartments. Often times, Madar says, there’s only one way to build, and that’s up.

“That is a tough trade off between quality of life and new buildings, but it’s really the only way out,” he says. 

Unfortunately, he says, it’s unlikely the units in the new buildings near Central Park will offer up affordable housing options for many New Yorkers. But Law-Gisiko says Community Board 5 hasn’t given up on working with the developers. Extell, the development company behind the new towers in her neighborhood as agreed to a meeting.

“The idea we’re two sides fighting with pitchforks is wrong. We’re helping them to build the best possible buildings,” she says, for the entire community, not just a penthouse for “one billionaire who wants to have a nice view.” 

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