Preservation Issues

Supertowers Draw Hundreds for Debate Over Height and Landmarking

Supertowers along 57th Street Near Central Park

An overflow crowd at the New York Public Library's main building on 42nd Street

The rise of several new and proposed supertowers — skyscrapers reaching 1400 or 1500 feet up — clustered on 57th Street and sure to cast long shadows on Central Park has alarmed New Yorkers. Conservancy President Peg Breen participated in the “Town Hall on Central Park Supertowers” panel, convened by Community Board 5, on February 19 to discuss this issue. An overflow crowd of several hundred gathered at the New York Public Library’s main building on 42nd Street to hear how planners, preservationists, politicians, and developers were responding to these new towers.

The towers are being built largely as-of-right, by developers who have assembled building sites and air rights, and are exploiting advances in engineering to create skyscrapers that will dwarf their neighbors, including several individual landmarks. The Conservancy has testified at the Landmarks Commission on proposed towers adjacent to the Steinway Building and Art Students League.

Breen concentrated on the historic nature of 57th Street—once the cultural center of the City with Carnegie Hall, artist studios and piano showrooms—and the architecturally distinguished buildings on the street that lack landmark status. These include the elegant former townhouse where Rizzoli’s Bookstore is located, Chickering Hall, a Cross and Cross building to the east of Rizzoli’s and the Tiffany and Crown Buildings on Fifty Seventh and Fifth Avenue. “When a supertower goes up, a building comes down,” she noted. “We need a comprehensive look at the street that will identify what buildings should be saved and where there is room for development.”

Breen, along with panelists Gary Barnett, president of Extell Development, landscape architect Judith Heintz, architect and urban planner Michael Kwartler, Margaret Newman, executive director of the Municipal Art Society, and author Warren St. John, whose October New York Times column on the impact of the supertower shadows on Central Park brought the issue to a wide audience, discussed whether and how the City could regulate new construction that casts long shadows on public amenities, in particular parks. While Barnett, who is building two of the towers, stated that they create jobs and increased tax revenue, the majority of the panel and politicians agreed that without more comprehensive planning, New York risks losing the unique historic architecture that gives the city its distinct character.