An extreme concentration of wealth in a city where even the air is for sale has produced a new breed of needle-like tower.
Form has always followed finance in New York, and this latest architectural byproduct of excess global wealth is no exception. Building very tall has been technically possible for some time, but it hasn’t made much commercial sense: the higher you go, the cost of building often exceeds the returns. That is, until now.
Like leggy plants given too much fertiliser, these buildings are a symptom of a city irrigated with too much money. The world’s population of ultra-high-net-worth individuals, a super-elite with assets of at least $30m, has now mushroomed beyond 250,000 people, all in need of somewhere to store their wealth. More than a third of them are based in North America, while those from riskier economic climes favour New York real estate as one of the safest places to park their cash.
The impact of this new species of tower hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Municipal Art Society of New York (Mas), a non-profit organisation that has been campaigning to protect the character of the city since the 1890s. They have published a series of Accidental Skyline reports over the last few years, lobbying for the planning process to be opened up to proper scrutiny.
“The first time most New Yorkers heard about this new crop of towers was when they saw them under construction,” says Tara Kelly of the Mas. “They are mostly built ‘as-of-right’, meaning the developers don’t need planning permission and they don’t need to notify anyone. There was no public review and no community engagement, and yet these buildings will be casting huge shadows across Central Park for years to come.”
Complaining about shadows in a city of skyscrapers might sound perverse, but Mas has a long and illustrious history of battling shadows and shaping the form of New York.
The group was instrumental in passing the city’s first zoning laws, spurred on by the arrival of the Equitable Building in 1915, a 40-storey stone Goliath that filled an entire city block in Lower Manhattan and rose hundreds of feet up from the sidewalk. It is now a cherished landmark, but at the time it was monstrously out of context – a great mountain that blocked the flow of air, dumped thousands of pedestrians on to the narrow pavements and cast a seven-acre shadow over the neighbourhood.
[A] law, introduced in 1968, allows designated landmark buildings to sell their air rights across the street or down the block, spawning odd little-and-large pairings around the city. It was intended as a means of compensating historic buildings for the potential financial losses stemming from their landmark status (which severely restricts alterations), and allowing the city to skirt any financial responsibility itself. The result is a very New York scenario: great megaliths loom above tiny historic fragments, perversely protecting them in perpetuity in the process.
Such Faustian bargains are nothing new. In the 1970s, Donald Trump paid $5m for the air rights above the landmarked Tiffany building on Fifth Avenue, which, along with various other deals, allowed him to inflate what would have been a 20-storey building into the 58-storey Trump Tower. Twenty years later, he stockpiled air rights from at least seven low-rise properties in Midtown Manhattan and piled them up to create the 70-storey black glass box of Trump World Tower.
But these negotiations pale in comparison to what has happened over the last decade.