Central Park, and the billionaires' shadow

One57 towers over the park. (Photos by Jim Windolf)
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Jim Windolf

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It was a cold November afternoon in Battery Park, even with the sun beating down, and it would have been colder if master builder Robert Moses had gotten his way, back in 1939, when he tried to build a new bridge connecting Brooklyn and lower Manhattan.

The Moses plan called for elevated rampways and huge concrete piers that would have taken up much of Battery Park and left the remaining open space in deep shadow. But a band of prominent New Yorkers, aided by Moses' arch enemy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, fought back in time to save the park and to keep the sunlight for this piece of Manhattan. It was a rare defeat for the city's most powerful man.

My curiosity about shadows in the city landscape is what had led me here. Even with the City Council having just rejected the east midtown rezoning plan, slender new skyscrapers will continue to rise all over town, from Leonard Street, through Hudson Yards, and onto the south end of Central Park, and with the building boom will come new shadows.

I was walking through Battery Park on my way to the Skyscraper Museum, founded in 1996 by Carol Willis, an architectural historian who teaches urban studies at Columbia University. She was leading a 3 p.m. tour of her latest exhibit, "Sky High: The Logic of Luxury," which focuses on the advent of tall, skinny buildings throughout Manhattan, with an emphasis on the ones at Central Park's south end.

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My interest in the subject had been stoked by "Shadows Over Central Park," an Oct. 28 New York Times op-ed by Warren St. John. I was trying to determine for myself whether the shadows to be cast by the supertowers were worth worrying about—or was this just a micro-concern for urban wusses who like to complain about almost any change?

Willis is an energetic woman in her sixties. The color of her loose, curly hair is academic white. She launched into an enthusiastic, slam-bang history of skyscrapers for me and the five other men who had shown up before hitting her main topic: the new breed of unusually thin towers.

One of these is the nearly completed glass tower called One57, a 1,004-foot residential building at 157 West 57th Street. This is the structure made famous during superstorm Sandy, when a crane dangled from an upper story, causing an evacuation. It made news once again last month, when one of its apartments, a duplex penthouse, reportedly sold for more than $90 million. Gary Barnett's Extell Development Company is the builder, working from plans by Christian de Portzamparc, who won the 1994 Pritzker Prize for architecture.

The developer Harry Macklowe is deep into construction of another such building, 432 Park, not far to the east of One57; it will reach a height of 1,396 feet—technically higher than the new World Trade Center, which tops out at 1,368 feet, before its spire hits the magic number of 1,776.

Another residential tower—this one to come in at 1,350 feet, developed by Michael Stern's JDS Construction Group—will rise between the Macklowe and Barnett buildings. The Skyscraper Museum's exhibit features large-scale models of all three, and Willis seemed house-proud as she showed them off.

"Engineers could have built slender buildings for decades," she said. "In effect, there's nothing very special about the technology of them. It's the land value of New York, and it's New York's characteristic zoning and air-rights transfers of property that allow for the buildings to become very tall. And it's the view of Central Park that creates the high prices. When a developer thinks about his projects, he knows how much money he is going to make. Today we have an excited market, and these buildings are commanding $6,000 to $8,000—even $13,000—per square foot, sales prices that allow you take the next step in development logic of these buildings, which is the logic of luxury."

After the tour, Willis told me to think of the towers as special entities similar, in a way, to "rare flowers that can grow only in the Galapagos Islands," because a combination of special factors (an exuberant market, the rise of the billionaire class, the Central Park views) has made made them specific architectural creatures native to Manhattan. Buildings in Dubai, to which they are often compared, are actually fatter, Willis said; the only similar structure is in Hong Kong.

When I asked her, in a phone interview, about the issue of the Central Park shadows, she said: "It's really important to know how slender these buildings are. People imagine the shadows will be huge and overbearing, but the shadow for 111 57th Street is going to be 50 feet wide and it's going to travel very quickly. The super slender towers are a new form in the history of the skyscraper. Once we begin to appreciate that part of it, and get away from the outrage of the $90-million penthouses and the resentment that rich people are going to throw shadows onto Central Park, then they become something special, rather than just another mundane tower."

The next morning it was sunny and 36 degrees. I stood in Central Park to see One57's shadow with my own eyes. At 10:45 it lay diagonally across the park's southwest corner and it was 45 paces wide. A bearded British tourist stood within its bounds, aiming his camera at One57. He snapped a picture, and I asked him what he thought of it. "It's awesome, isn't it?" he said. I told him it had just been built, and he said, "Really?" To him, One57 was not an interloper. It belonged to the cityscape as much as the Essex House, with its charmingly cheesy sign.

Completed in 1931, the Essex House is 461 feet tall (44 stories). From where I stood, the mid-November sun, low in the sky, held a position higher than its rooftop sign, suggesting that 461 feet might be the ideal maximum height for buildings close to Central Park. At the same time, the sun was roughly at the midpoint of One57. As the sun seemed to move westward, the shadow of One57 crept eastward, toward rocky outcroppings in the park's main section.

My visit to the Skyscraper Museum, with its maps, charts, and models, had left me with the impression that 432 Park would lay too far east for its shadows to come into play, here in the park. But there it was, already part of the immediate skyline. An American flag waved from the top story of this under-construction building. When 432 Park reaches its full height, it seemed to me, it would indeed throw a big black stripe of its own into the park.

This was one of those cold fall days, with no wind to speak of, that leaves you feeling warm enough when you're in the sun. I counted 75 people milling around in the area close to where I stood. A man, a woman, and a small boy, about four years old, occupied a place in the sun. The man was tossing a foam baseball to the boy, who swung a toy bat. One57's shadow crept toward them and took them in. They moved thirty feet or so to the northeast, back into the sun, and resumed their game. Fifteen minutes later, the shadow got them again, and they left.

An old man with a white beard sat on a smooth glacial rock in the sun. I watched him as he removed his jacket and lay down, now using the jacket as a blanket. He scratched himself and seemed to fall asleep. Ten minutes later, the shadow took him in. He sat up and looked around with an attitude of, "What the hell just happened?" He stood and walked north, where the One57 shadow was stretching into the Heckscher softball fields.

By itself, the shadow of One57 may be no big deal. But it struck me as unfair that, sometime next year, someone who paid $90 million for a glass-walled, floor-through residence will lounge in full sunshine while the old man will have less light of his own. And it will be more unfair when other shadows join that of One57 in a race across the park. In addition to the three buildings I have mentioned, Barnett (of Extell) hopes to build yet another needle tower, at the corner of Broadway and West 57th Street. And it has been reported that a sale is pending for the rather homely Helmsley Park Lane Hotel, which stands even closer to the park's edge, at 36 Central Park South. Steven Witkoff's Witkoff Group has offered some $660 million for it.

The logic of luxury, followed to its extreme, would suggest that Witkoff tear down the 46-story Park Lane and replace it with a needle tower capable of fetching, oh, $8-13,000 per square foot. (Less clear is whether he can.) But the more certain thing is just down the block, at 220 Central Park South: Madave Properties, a partnership of Steven Roth's Vornado Realty Trust and Veronica Hackett's Clarett Group (these names!), has emerged from a legal duel with Barnett and hopes to put up a slim condominium of its own, at 920 feet, to be designed by Robert A.M. Stern, the architect of the nearby 15 Central Park West. Real-estate gods willing, a total of six towers will stand between the sun and the park—meaning six shadows will creep across the rocks and grass.

Let's calm down a moment and remember that people don't live in New York City (especially not in Manhattan) because of its natural wonder. Plenty who grew up amid sunshine and streams made the choice to give up the pastoral life for the chance to distinguish themselves in the city's noise and bustle. And yet—does Manhattan sunlight belong more to the movers and shakers than to the nappers and dreamers?

Central Park has fended off numerous encroachments almost since the day its first section was open to the public, in 1858. A number of projects were suggested for this urban oasis in its first decades of existence, some of them with official backing: a 30,000-car garage to be placed beneath the south end; a widening of West 59th Street (also known as Central Park South) into the park; the placement of Grant's Tomb within its boundaries; a circus grounds; a 100,000-seat outdoor theater; a memorial World War I battlefield, complete with trenches; a landing field for airplanes; a radio station; and a cultural center that would have occupied six acres. Noting such threats, a 1924 New York Times article included a drawing of what Central Park would look like, had the plans gone through—and the result was a mishmash of structures that took up almost all of the open space.

The latest threat is less concrete. The question is, do the towers' shadows count as an encroachment worth fighting against?

CONCERN ABOUT CITY SHADOWS HAS BEEN around for a long time. In the 1924 Times article, the city's former health commissioner, Dr. Haven Emerson, argued that the value of the park lies in its ability to provide sunlight: "The shadow of the city, which is far more than a figure of speech since the advent of high buildings, has become a serious menace to public health," he said. "It was recognized long ago in England, where a frequency of open spaces and low buildings was dictated by the northern latitude. A flatter angle of the sun increased shadow. Here, these high buildings have imposed gravely upon our former better fortune in this regard. Central Park is accordingly a stronghold in this defense, to be held at all costs and at all times, especially against invasions of buildings, for buildings are the very essence of the peril which places like Central Park are designed to offset."

Agreeing with him on the matter of shadows' effect on quality of life for city dwellers was Jane Jacobs, the urban-planning sage who led the successful charge against Moses' attempt to run an elevated parkway from the East River to the Hudson, straight through Greenwich Village. "Although buildings should not cut sun from a park–if the object is to encourage full use–the presence of buildings around a park is important in design," Jacobs wrote in her 1961 treatise, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. "They enclose it." Going by her reasoning, something like the 461-foot Essex House would seem to do a nice job of hemming in Central Park while also allowing even its edge the benefit of the low autumn or spring sun.

The world's experts in urban park management are the officers and trustees who run the Central Park Conservancy. Since its 1980 founding, this private, not-for-profit company has transformed the severely rundown 843 acres into a beautiful, functional oasis. So it would be logical to ask them if they believed the towers' shadows are an issue. After declining to comment for an earlier version of this article published this morning, Conservancy spokesperson Dena Lebner sent the following statement to Capital:

"Since the Park’s 1857 creation, numerous buildings have been established on its perimeter. Depending on the time and day of season, those buildings sometimes cast shadows. In the Conservancy’s 33-year experience of Park restoration and maintenance, these shadows have not significantly affected either the Park’s horticulture, which we are responsible for maintaining, or significantly impacted the experience of more than 40 million people who visit the Park annually. As a result of our partnership with the city, much of Central Park has been restored and is expertly maintained. Visitors’ use and enjoyment of the Park is ever-evolving; so is the landscape outside the Park’s perimeter. The Conservancy’s mission – to restore and maintain Central Park as a respite for millions of New Yorkers – is unwavering.”

Over the years, the group has raised and overseen the investment of $690 million into the park; of that, more than $110 million has come from city taxpayers, according to the Conservancy's web site. This past summer city comptroller John Liu formally protested a ten-year, $90 million contract between the Conservancy and the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. In a public letter to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the comptroller questioned the city's habit of giving so generously to the Conservancy, already so nicely funded by its wealthy patrons, when other city parks have fallen into disrepair.

"If we are serious about equitably distributing scarce resources," Liu wrote, "we need to reallocate a portion of the City's capital contributions for Central Park to parks with higher needs that are over-reliant on discretionary funds."

This, like many of Liu's talking points, later became a talking point for mayor-elect Bill de Blasio.

Blonsky earned $456,319 in 2012, Liu wrote in his report. But other salaries on the Conservancy can be hard to find. Searches on the city's vaunted transparency website Checkbook NYC don't turn up any answers. But listed in the Conservancy's 990 form (which I dug up online) are the salaries for its top officers. In addition to President and C.E.O. Blonsky's $456,319, it shows the following for the year 2011: in total compensation, chief financial officer Stephen Spinelli earned $316,667; vice president for planning, design, and construction Christopher Nolan made $283,789; there was $264,048 for Terri Coppersmith, the vice president for development and visitor experience; $247,138 for vice president for operations Neil Calvanese; $197,111 for Laura Hall, the vice president for development, women's committee; and $191,210 for controller Kathryn Ortiz (who is no longer at the Conservancy).

No one argues with the Conservancy's record of success; and people working for successful nonprofits tend to make more money than those working in government; but it is interesting to note that five Conservancy officers earn more than the $205,180 annual salary of New York City Parks Commissioner Veronica White. (White also sits on the Conservancy's board; her office did not return a call and email seeking comment for this story.)

And the board is well populated with real-estate interests. Jeff Blau, the president and C.E.O. of Related Companies, which is constructing a new tower at Hudson Yards, sits on the Conservancy's board, as does Jayne Bayard, who is the executive vice president of Warburg Realty Partnership.

Among the major contributors listed in the Conservancy's handsome 2012 annual report are the developers Richard LeFrak and Jerry Speyer, as well as the real-estate or development companies Tishman Speyer Properties, Brown Harris Stevens, Douglas Elliman Property Management, the Related Companies, and the Corcoran Group, all of which may not be unfairly said to have an interest in a needle-tower boom.

A reported 17 percent of the Conservancy's contributions come from those who live in residential park neighborhoods, still largely on the west and east sides of the park. A greater number of super-wealthy residents at the park's south end would seem to herald a new influx of potential patrons.

This is from the Conservancy's mission statement:

"The mission of the Central Park Conservancy is to restore, manage, and enhance Central Park in partnership with the public.

"The Conservancy aspires to build a great organization that sets the standard for and spreads the principles of world-class park management—emphasizing environmental excellence—to improve the quality of open space for the enjoyment of all."

Will the shadows lessen the enjoyment of the estimated 40 million people who visit the park each year? The issue seems like something the Conservancy should at least grapple with, in a public manner, but they have not been compelled to do that.

Robert Moses learned the hard way not to mess with Central Park. After his early-career defeat in Battery Park, he enjoyed a long run of popular success until "the Battle of Central Park," as the press called it. It took place in April 1956, when Moses expanded the Tavern on the Green parking lot. To do so, his men had to bulldoze huge trees inside the park. Residents of Central Park West gathered to watch and to protest, creating an ongoing media spectacle that pitted armed police officers and hard-hatted construction men against housewives and kids. After it was all over, Moses never quite regained the popularity that had helped to keep him in power, Robert Caro writes in The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York.

Moses knew the city better than anyone else, but in his arrogance he forgot that New Yorkers pay special attention to Central Park.

 

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