It sounds like an old radio play: "Who knows what evil lurks within the hearts of men? The Shadows knows! Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!"
But the threat is all too real: supertall skyscrapers being built along 57th street in Manhattan--"Billionaire's Row"--with little government oversight and no community involvement, casting enormous shadows over Central Park. Eight of these monstrosities are in various states of construction, with more on the way.
Last Sunday, hundreds of demonstrators gathered at Columbus Circle and marched across 57th Street to Sutton Place to protest against this private encroachment on the most public of resources: sunlight. Protestors carried open black umbrellas on a beautiful, sunny, fall day to symbolize the perpetual darkness descending on the park and the surrounding blocks.
The march paused along the way in front of One57, the poster child for conspicuous consumption. One57 is 90 stories (1,005 feet) tall and located smack-dab at the center of Central Park South. It is already mostly sold. A penthouse duplex recently closed for $100.47 million, breaking the record for the highest single residence price in New York City. (Pluto was the lord of the underworld. Can you still be called a plutocrat if you're living on the 90th floor?)
The protest was organized by #Stand Against The Shadows, a grassroots organization of concerned citizens. It was modeled on Jackie Onassis's successful 1987 campaign to reduce the shadow cast by the then proposed Time Warner Center, which replaced the old New York Coliseum. (Too bad #Stand Against The Shadows doesn't have a current celebrity to champion its cause. Taylor Swift, are you listening?)
Before the March, there were speeches. Mary Rowe, Vice President, Managing Director for the Municipal Art Society of New York, said "we just want to take a breath...we don't want an accidental skyline." The Accidental Skyline, not coincidentally, is the title of MAS's 2013 report on supertall buildings.
Layla Law-Gisiko, a member of Community Board 5's Central Park Sunshine Task Force, echoed her sentiments: "We aren't anti-development. We want sound development."
New York City Council Member Ben Kallos, representing District 5, said the most important thing was to include regulations for supetalls in the new the Zoning for Quality and Affordability (ZQA) proposal issued by NYC Planning.
Sadly, no one from Mayor Bill de Blasio's office was in attendance. De Blasio inherited this mess from the Bloomberg administration, but so far shows little stomach for taking it on. To peek his interest, #StandAgainstTheShadows has launched a letter writing campaign to the Mayor.
Bloomberg gave the game away in one of his last radio addresses as mayor: "If we could get every billionaire around the world to move here, it would be a godsend." He forced through zoning changes that made the supertalls legally permissible. A physically tiny man, Bloomberg seems to suffer from an edifice complex.
To add insult to injury, many of these apartments will never even be occupied; they're "investment properties." As reported in the New York Times, they are being purchased by shady foreigners--Russian oligarchs, Chinese party officials, Saudi Arabian sheiks, etc.--to move money out of their countries. And since the purchases are frequently made through shell companies, it's difficult to even figure out who the real owners are.
(I think I've come up with the solution to the problem. It's a little app I've developed called AirSquat. It hooks up homeless people with untenanted luxury condos. I'm sure the owners--whoever they are--being civic-minded individuals, won't object.)
Supertalls are technological marvels. They require complex counterweight systems to keep from swaying too much in the wind; otherwise, the occupants would get motion sickness. But just because you can build something, doesn't mean you should.
There is some good news on the horizon. A recent article in Curbed reports sales for apartments in supertalls is slowing. An analysis by CitiLab suggests we may have reached the economic, if not physical, limit of supertalls. The question is, what will Manhattan look like once the current crop finishes growing? With apologies to J.R.R. Tolkien:
One57 to rule them all, One57 to find them,
One57 to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
In the Land of Manhattan where the Shadows lie.