Future of Glooming Shadows over Manhattan

Elinor Fine & Judith Pearlman address the issue and possible solutions in a proposal distributed at the MAS Meeting, Feb. 26, 2015:

Proposal: Municipal Art Society Annual Meeting

Most of you have seen New York Magazine, Vanity Fair and the recent five-part series in the New York Times about Manhattan’s new towers and the absentee owners of many of their palatial condos. Who are those “owners?” It’s hard to tell, since they are often shell companies―trusts, limited liability corporations and other entities that exist only to keep secrets. But this is not news; rather, the end result of an increasingly complicated process that goes back about a century: the marriage of air rights and zoning laws. And it’s only half the problem.

In the past, the sky was always visible, but air rights and zoning variances have made it all but disappear from our city. Manhattan is getting darker and darker. The canyons of Wall Street have moved uptown. They have invaded Midtown and the Upper East and West Side, casting day-long shadows on Central Park as far north as 72nd Street. Huge towers are invading the avenues, blocking the sun from morning to night. Even 53rd street will soon be consumed by MoMA’s 83-story mid-block tower.

Tall buildings have always been built in New York, but never to the height where they affect the quality of life in the city, and never so many of them so close together, intensifying the problem. We can blame the developers (who are profiting mightily from condo sales to shell companies and the local 1% alike). But they are only doing what air rights and malleable zoning laws permit them to do.

The transfer of air rights (originally limited to buildings adjacent to one another) has now gathered steam and power, and will be portable—crossing streets and neighborhoods, guaranteeing (since there is no adequate oversight of the process) that the problem will grow.

Change is essential. And, like the concept of air rights and zoning laws, it has a basis in history. At the end of 1917, both houses of Congress passed a resolution calling for Prohibition. It was ratified by most of the states within a year and became the 18th Amendment to the Constitution. When its flaws (largely economic) began to outweigh its virtues, Congress ratified the 21st Amendment, and Repeal became the law of the land;

Proof that laws are made (or repealed) by public officials, and it is we who elect them.

New York’s laws governing zoning and the sale of air rights are not written in stone, did not come down with Moses and, therefore, can be changed—MUST be changed to maintain what is left of the city that New Yorkers (and the tourists who enhance the city’s cash flow) cherish. That city was not built of mega-towers that eat our light and air and destroy the character of our neighborhoods. Nor is it, or should it be, a city that denies affordable shelter to those who work and live in it full-time.

New York should not serve as a bank, a safety deposit box for owners of shell corporations looking solely for a bulletproof return on their investments. Using their pieds-à-terre as cash cows and trophies, they are also granted generous tax abatements, exempt from contributing to the tax base that keeps the city’s infrastructure running. Nor, since they are seldom “home,” do they actually spend much on goods and services here, either. So, without having any responsibility to nourish the city, the benefits of ownership accrue only to “owners”―not to the city or its economy.

What agency or agencies have permitted these problems to reach critical mass? Who has oversight? Where are the officials and citizens to protect us from this kind of abuse? The city has been raped, and it takes the Times, Vanity Fair, and New York Magazine to make it official. Everyone who walks in Manhattan is aware of the darkness and the shadows of the bigger and bigger buildings that create them.

Where were the government agencies such as the Planning Board, the Landmarks Preservation Commission, the City Council, the Community Boards. etc. and the private,
non-profit societies (like the Central Park Conservancy, CIVITAS and MAS) whose mission is to protect and conserve, to keep the public informed of these catastrophic changes and to combat them? Who is going to galvanize the rallying cry? These groups should be aware of the permanent consequences of actions NOT taken—of laws not modified or repealed.

Unlike pictures at an exhibition, these huge buildings will not be taken down in three weeks. We must protect and retain our special character. Too much of it is already gone, with plans for much more to come. Once gone, it can’t be reclaimed. The pace has accelerated.
Without oversight of developers, whose path is eased by how much money they can offer
the buildings and institutions who need it to sell their air rights, there will be no improvement. How could the Landmarks Preservation Commission approve the behemoth cantilevering over the Arts Students League for which the League received tens of millions of dollars)?

Here is one solution:

1) Alter (not erase) the air rights in this way: they must be monitored and limited so that needle towers are prohibited (as well as mega-towers like Nordstrom), but can go, along with tax incentives, to developers who will gut and upgrade to luxury status existing buildings without making them higher. This has already been done with the Gulf+Western Building, the Claridge, and the Chatsworth (for business, mixed, or residential use), and would ameliorate the effect of taller buildings and greater density for Midtown East.

2) Align the zoning and tax laws to eliminate loopholes that permit buyers of the new spaces to pay virtually no taxes.

Creative thinking can be employed to find other options encourage development without encouraging darkness or stealing from the city’s tax base. Let’s hear them! In the meantime,
if one does not object to that which is objectionable, if one remains silent, it is tantamount to acceptance and approval.

I call on MAS and related agencies, I beseech them to begin now, before further damage is done. By remaining watchful of projects in development (while encouraging new solutions), they have the power to inform their members and other interested parties of the process, and of what can be done by those opposed to them to scale them down or to prevent them from being realized.

MAS can be enormously effective by mustering its knowledge and experience and by wielding them where they will do the most good. And it is up to the public – to us – to use the information to elect officials who will support change.

Elinor Fine and Judith Pearlman