Rise of the Sliver Hotel: Why Blah Buildings Are Blighting Midtown

The 85-foot upper setback rule is meant to allow light and air to reach the street, but the idea that buildings should narrow above this height is a modern one, and not one that pre-war builders followed. The Four Points by Sheraton at 158 West 25th Street, for example, is surrounded by 12-story pre-war buildings with no setbacks, something that would be illegal today. A Hampton Inn at 116 West 31st Street sits directly across the street from a 16-story loft building dating to 1912. Shooting straight up from the sidewalk for its full height, it is about twice as tall as a building without setbacks is allowed to rise today.

The Fruit Roll-Up on on West 37th (photo by New York YIMBY)

The Fruit Roll-Up on on West 37th (New York YIMBY)

Gene Kaufman and Peter Poon are the architects of choice for Manhattan’s set-back hotel builders. Their designs are often pilloried on the city’s real estate blogs, earning comparisons to lunchbox treats.

“Besides the lack of windows, the front of the building is bifurcated by what appears to be an enormous Fruit Roll-Up,” New York YIMBY’s Nikolai Fedak wrote of Mr. Poon’s Courtyard by Marriott at 307 West 37th Street. The design deficiencies of Mr. Kaufman and Mr. Poon’s hotels are only magnified by their awkward size and placement on the lot.

Nor is criticism limited to the nether-reaches of the blogosphere.

“I think those dinky hotels are something of a blight,” Vanity Fair architecture critic Paul Goldberger wrote in an email after being contacted by The Observer. Mr. Goldberger dubbed them “this decade’s version of the ‘sliver’ apartment buildings that went up a generation ago, when developers were sneaking mini-high rises into townhouse-sized parcels.”

Should the Department of City Planning decide to do something about these “sliver hotels,” it has two options: do away with the required setbacks above 85 feet (or at least raise the height at which these setbacks are necessary, for example in areas where pre-war buildings are already violating the rule), or stop allowing developers to take advantage of the alternate front setback rule and tower form.

In recent years New York City planners have begun to address the issue, but only across relatively small areas and in response to private rezoning applications. For example, in a district encompassing the mid-block portion just south of Penn Station, for example, the code requires builders to meet the sidewalk and set back above a certain height. The Department of City Planning’s summary page highlights one of these sliver hotels as something the new zone would prevent, though the featured building is not actually within the rezoning area.

The Hudson Square rezoning, initiated in response to a request by Trinity Church, a large landowner in the neighborhood, will also forbid such hotels set back from the lot line.

But for the Manhattan landowners who don’t have the clout to get their own personal rezonings, the old rules stay in effect, and the set-back sliver hotels will continue to rise.