Too Late, Community Mobilizes to Save Central Park from Skyscraper Shadows

Too late!

Too late!

Last night, nearly 500 New Yorkers gathered at the New York Public Library’s main branch for a forum on the wave of skyscrapers that are rising along the Southern edge of Central Park. Skyscrapers that will, depending on whom you ask, either transform Central Park into a gloomy airshaft or create shadows as fleeting and insubstantial as a cloud moving across the sun. Concerns were raised, grievances aired and oligarchs denigrated. Politicians vowed to defend the public good, the community’s benefit was invoked repeatedly, and Gary Barnett briefly managed to distract everyone from the matter at hand by dissing the Midtown East rezoning. All of which is to say it was a cathartic, and at times entertaining evening, but in the end a futile one. For the sunlight-blocking skyscrapers being debated are, at this point, essentially, fait accompli.

One57 and 432 Park are all but completed; Extell’s tower at 217 West 57th Street and JDS’s Steinway-adjacent tower have secured city approval (needed because of their interactions with neighboring landmark sites); and just a few weeks ago Vornado revealed renderings of the limestone-clad, A.M. Stern-designed, as-of-right skyscraper it intends to build on Central Park South. As a panelist noted at one point in the evening, there is limited potential for additional towers given that developers of the aforementioned sites have gobbled up many of the air rights along 57th Street. The question of whether and how Central Park will be cast in shadow by the towers is, in other words, not so much a matter of debate, but one of wait-and-see.

Discussions of San Francisco’s shadow policies, mandatory shadow studies and a more stringent review process for buildings that exceed a particular height—in other words, forbidding as-of-right buildings above a certain height—are useful, of course, when it comes to setting zoning policy for other neighborhoods. But though the forum was, ostensibly, about the broader issue of skyscraper construction everywhere in the city, it was, with the exception of several early speeches from politicians, rather narrowly focused on 57th Street.

In any event, it was, at least useful for releasing some of the rage that has been building against the skyscrapers and the oligarchs who, it is assumed, will be buying the rarely-occupied, palatial pied-a-terres that make up the bulk of their square-footage.

The panel included preservationists, architects, planners—Peg Breen, President of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, Margaret Newman of the Municipal Art Society, Michael Kwartler, an architect and planner, landscape architect Judith Heintz and journalist Warren St. John—and Extell’s Gary “glutton for punishment” Barnett, as he introduced himself, who seemed to be resigned to the role as villain as the only developer in attendance (and the only one who had been invited, according to the community board). Mr. Barnett wore, somewhat strangely, a black mock turtle neck and black trousers of what appeared to be velour, while the others on the panel had taken pains to dress formally in suits. He seemed only to bristle, in earnest, when One57′s architectural merit was called into question, and at one point objected to the “cheap shots”and endless snide references to “oligarchs, monarchs and aristocrats.”

In the end, the question of whether or not Central Park would be covered in shadow was not resolved—Mr. Barnett pointed out that there were already tall buildings surrounding it and that the terrifying shadow studies had been done on December 21. Less convincingly, he argued that “the southern edge of the park is covered by beautiful trees, which also provide shade.” Mr. St. John presented a slide of the park engulfed in shadow—eliciting a few gasps from the crowd—that had not been taken on December 21, or in December at all. But it also served to underscore the fact that saving Central Park from shadow was rather a lost cause.

As one of the crowd-submitted questions taken at the end of the meeting rather aptly asked, “Is there any recourse or reconsideration for buildings that have already been approved?”

The answer, of course, was no. However, as the evening drew to a close, at least Mr. Barnett and the other panelists found one thing they could agree on. Mr. Barnett, somewhat unexpectedly, attacked the Midtown East rezoning, expressing concern that Mayor de Blasio would give in to real estate interests and push it through without the consideration it warranted.

“I think the Midtown East rezoning needs a lot of time and study before it gets pushed through,” Mr. Barnett said.

“I would like to agree with Gary that we really need to take another look at Midtown East,” Ms. Breen seconded.