Clips: Paul Goldberger on the New York City Skyline

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The American architectural critic and educator Paul Goldberger appears on our show this week, The Long, Dark Shadows of Plutocracy. We could not fit all of his knowledge and insights into the program, so we’ve made them available here.

On the logic behind residential super towers
In this clip, Goldberger explains why real estate developers are shifting their focus from office towers to luxury condos in the sky.

How global wealth diminishes midtown Manhattan
Goldberger explains what happens when the quirky heart of midtown Manhattan is eclipsed by international luxury.

On skyscraper height limits
Goldberger says a more thorough review for proposed buildings above a certain height is needed in the future.

Transcript, Paul Golberger Clips

On the logic behind residential super towers

For most of the history of the skyscraper, the very tallest buildings have been offices. They’ve been buildings people worked in, not buildings people lived in. And the economics have changed, at least in midtown Manhattan they’ve changed, so that you can actually make more money developing these sites as apartments than as offices, which is what we used to do.

And as a result, developers are building these super tall, super thin buildings. Because apartments, not only do you not need huge floor plates, you don’t really want it. Because in fact, you can sell an apartment for a lot more money if you can offer people multiple views in all directions, say. And when you can sell a full floor, that comes at a premium. So all those things contribute to a really skinny building.

Also, an apartment building needs a lot less elevators, many fewer elevators than an office building does. And elevators are really the Achilles heel of skyscrapers because they take up so much space. And when you go really, really tall with an office building, most of the lower floors are taken up by elevators that are just there because that’s where the elevator shaft has to be to get somebody to the upper floors.

So the lower floors aren’t very big; they’re just a doughnut around a lot of elevators. And only when you get toward the top do you have much floor space. So that’s very, very costly. An apartment building, on the other hand, you don’t need many elevators at all because there just aren’t so many people going in and out. And some of these buildings, you need even fewer elevators than you might with a normal apartment building because these are very big apartments, not many units per building. And not all that many of those people are living there all the time, very few.

How global wealth diminishes midtown Manhattan and Central Park

One of these buildings might not have mattered quite that much but, you know, two of them are now up and several more are in the process of going ahead. So when this whole boom is over — Central Park is going to be very seriously impacted. But so is midtown Manhattan, which is increasingly not a neighborhood for New Yorkers. It’s a neighborhood of part-timers and tourists and visitors.

You know, maybe that’s just part of urban evolution. Maybe that’s not something we should — we can do much about. But 57th Street was once a wonderful mix of large and small buildings and luxury shops and quirky, out-of-the-way odd shops and bookshops and all kinds of interesting, unusual things along with the great retail anchors in the middle like Tiffany and Bergdorf Goodman and so forth.

It’s now becoming all super international luxury. There’s very little left that is characteristic of New York that exists in the New York and nowhere else. And that’s a loss too, I think, for just the sense that, when you go from another part of New York to West 57th Street, you’re not going to the heart of New York. Rather, you’re going to some international zone that feels like Dubai, in some ways, and doesn’t feel like New York.

Can we do anything about it? You know, it’s hard to say. I’m not for accepting these things complacently. But the reality is they are set in motion by global economic forces that we are not in a position to control. And we can either take advantage of them or not, but we can’t make them disappear. We can’t make them evaporate.

On skyscraper height limits

Well, I think that we will have to find a way to manage it. We have not been managing it thus far — in part because many of these buildings are built — they’re built entirely legally under the zoning laws, because they aggregate the air rights from multiple adjacent sites into one small footprint, which allows them to go very, very high.

I think we need to examine buildings much more carefully going forward. I don’t know that New York should ever have an actual height limit; that feels very unlike our DNA. After all, we’re the skyscraper city, New York and Chicago are the two cities where skyscrapers began.

But I don’t think we should be, you know, giving automatic approval to buildings like this. I think we probably should require that buildings above a certain height require special review and permission. And that the Planning Commission should be deeply engaged and look at the overall impact of any new building on its neighbors, its neighborhood, as well as public spaces like the park.

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