Standing on Sixth Avenue and peering west down 26th Street, one is greeted with a familiar Manhattan sight: a sheer wall of buildings, flanking the street on both sides. But look a little closer, and a gap emerges in the street wall at 125 West 26th Street, with the blank brick walls and sparsely-placed, unadorned lot line windows of the neighboring pre-wars peeking out from the sides.
This wouldn’t be unusual if it was an empty lot—something a developer was sitting on until the time was right to build—but approaching the gap, it becomes clear that there is already a building there, and a tall one at that—a Holiday Inn. It just doesn’t meet the sidewalk.
Tall, narrow, strangely setback hotels have been sprouting like weeds across the lower half of Manhattan these last few years, their builders rushing to fill the city’s seemingly insatiable demand for hotels of all kinds. In 2011, developers added 4,404 new hotel rooms to the city’s existing 74,025 rooms, according to The New York Times. At 5.9 percent, it was the highest annual increase on record.
Which explains the hotels, but why are they all set back from the street wall, sticking out like sore thumbs and violating a central tenet of good urban design?
According to Robert Cook, a land use attorney at Anderson Kill & Olick, the decision by developers to build these odd-looking towers is driven, like all things real estate, by two considerations: economics and zoning.
“From the owner and developer’s perspective, it’s much less expensive to build and maintain a building that goes straight up,” Mr. Cook told The Observer, “and this is particularly important for hotels, because they can get a cookie-cutter layout on each floor. This way, they don’t have to work around the issues of where the core is going to go,” as they would if the building has a setback above a certain height.
When combined with New York City’s notoriously fickle zoning code, the financial pressure to build uniform floor plans can yield some awkward results.
The crux of the zoning issue is the Department of City Planning’s rules about what is known as the “sky exposure plane.” When a building rises straight up from the sidewalk, the architect must often set the building back on floors higher than 85 feet, or about eight stories—something that hotel builders worried about costs are loathe to do, as it would require different floor plans above the setback.
To get around this restriction, builders can use what’s known as “tower regulations.” Builders are allowed to violate the sky exposure plane, Mr. Cook explained, so long as the structure doesn’t occupy more than about half the lot and the base of the building is pushed back at least fifteen feet from the sidewalk (or ten feet on wide streets). In other words, developers can build straight up as tall as they’d like, without having to vary the size of the building’s floor plates.
Buildings using tower rules (or another called the “alternate front setback” rule, which mandates a similar gap between the sidewalk and the structure) can also sometimes qualify for the “plaza bonus,” which allows structures to have more floorspace if they include a public plaza in front of their buildings. These plazas have largely fallen out of style among urban designers, but the incentives to build them remain in effect in New York City’s 1961 zoning code—a code which has been tweaked in the intervening years, but never fully overhauled and replaced.
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.
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.