Gary Barnett, the founder and president of Extell Development Company, likely knew what he was getting into when he showed up to a recent town hall on super-tall skyscrapers rising in New York. The hundreds of people who crowded into a room at the New York Public Library were not there to praise these soaring towers. They were there to see what could be done to stop more from rising.
The town hall, which was organized by Manhattan Community Board 5, was focused on the long, dark shadows that these new buildings will cast deep into Central Park. Barnett’s company is behind two of the projects, but on the rainy February night, he was the face of all of them.
One of Extell’s towers is the nearly completed Christian de Portzamparc–designed One57, which is already blocking sunlight in Central Park. A panelist at the event, journalist Warren St. John, has experienced this firsthand. He told the crowd about the shadows that fell across the park as he tried to play with his daughter on a recent afternoon.
St. John called for an immediate moratorium on this new generation of tall towers so the city, and public, can debate the approval process for these types of projects. “Once we have done that, we’ll come to a long-term plan, and all these trade-offs can be accounted for and debated; but what we shouldn’t do is sit around and debate that while the buildings go up,” he said.
He described what’s happening as “the debasement of a great public resource used by millions for the benefit of an elite few.” And this “debasement” will only get worse; because, at a mere 1,000-feet, One57 will soon be dwarfed by the glass giants rising around it.
A recent report by the Municipal Art Society called “The Accidental Skyline” predicts the impact these new structures will have on the park. Central Park’s future will—quite literally—be darker.
At the town hall, Margaret Newman, the society’s executive director, presented dramatic images from the report, which showed the park’s shadows before and after the towers are completed. Central Park has, of course, had shadows at its fringes for decades, but the coming towers will lay them deeper within its leafy confines.
After the panelists decried Barnett’s buildings for their height, shadows, lackluster design, and for catering to the global elite, Barnett got his turn at the mic.
“My name is Gary ‘I’m a glutton for punishment’ Barnett,” he said to a smattering of laughter. Considering the crowd, the joke landed pretty well.
As expected, he defended his company’s buildings saying they would create jobs, economic benefits for the city and state, and he rebuked claims that his buildings were unattractive. “Art is in the eye of the beholder,” he said.
Barnett also dismissed the notion that the shadows were a valid critique of his work. “Is a possible small, minute addition of shadows, that does no harm, a worthwhile tradeoff against our fellow New Yorkers’ chance to build a better life? For our city to grow and become greater? I think not,” said Barnett. “This is the wrong issue at the wrong time.”
He did not specify when the right time would be.
While the height of these new towers is unprecedented, the fight over shadows in Central Park is not. In 1987, the Municipal Art Society (MAS) and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis led a group of 800 New Yorkers into Central Park to protest a planned Moshe Safdie-designed tower at Columbus Circle. It was known as the “Umbrella Protest” because the crowd stood in the park and simultaneously opened umbrellas to show where the building’s massive shadow would fall. This protest, along with a lawsuit from MAS, was, at least partially, the reason the tower was never realized. In its place, came the shorter, glassier Time Warner Center.
So what can be done today to block more shadows from encroaching on Central Park? The panelists called for more public review of towers. They also wanted changes to the city’s planning and zoning codes to prevent more super-tall structures from rising alongside the park. The idea of adopting anti-shadow ordinances similar to the ones in San Francisco and Ft. Lauderdale was also floated.
For Peg Breen, from the New York Landmarks Conservancy, the issue surrounding super-tall towers is about more than shadows; it is about what the future of New York should look like.
She warned against the city growing taller just to catch up with cities in China and the Middle East. If that happens, she says, New York could lose its iconic stature.
A better New York, she explained, doesn’t have to come at the expense of the public or the developers. “There is plenty of room in this town for preservation, protection of open space and great new growth. New York City deserves it, we have to demand it.”