New York: Conspicuous Construction

Sky High and the Logic of Luxury

an exhibition at the Skyscraper Museum, New York City, October 9, 2013–June 15, 2014
Armand Boudreaux/YIMBY/Google Earth
A rendering of the condominium towers planned or under construction at 225 West 57th Street (Nordstrom Tower), 157 West 57th Street (One57), 111 West 57th Street, and 53 West 53rd Street in Manhattan


From the pre-Revolutionary period until World War II, tenants in New York City were uniformly given three months’ notice of annual rent increases on February 1 (known as Rent Day). Many then sought cheaper deals, and when all leases expired on May 1 (called Moving Day) as many as a million residents changed houses in what amounted to a single mass migration. Lately there’s been another, more specialized real estate frenzy afoot in America’s largest city. Its most visible manifestations concern the world’s very richest people.

Last December a long-anticipated threshold was crossed when a duplex penthouse atop the French architect Christian de Portzamparc’s new One57 condominium, on Manhattan’s West 57th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, sold for an unprecedented $100,471,452.77. In 2014 seven more apartments at that address, built by the Extell Development Company, changed hands for between $32 million and $56 million each, which together accounted for more than a third of the year’s two dozen biggest New York residential transactions. This January, another duplex there fetched $90 million.

Portzamparc’s tower of monetary power stands two blocks south of Central Park, at the epicenter of Manhattan’s densest concentration of top-of-the-line apartment construction since Fifth and Park Avenues were built up between the two world wars. The block directly west of One57 awaits another Extell venture, Nordstrom Tower, designed by Adrian Smith (architect of the world’s tallest structure, the Burj Khalifa of 2003–2010 in Dubai) and Gordon Gill. Comprising a branch of the Nordstrom’s fashion retailer at street level, a hotel above the store, and condos on the uppermost stories—unobstructed park views commence at 225 feet high, hence this sequence—it will rise next to and over Henry Hardenbergh’s Art Students League of 1891–1892 and become the city’s tallest residential building at 1,775 feet.

Nordstrom’s piggybacking was made possible by the developer’s purchase of the art school’s air rights—that is, the titular transfer of empty vertical space above nearby buildings never used to the full extent permissible by zoning laws. Such stratagems are an essential part of the complex legal and economic equation (what the skyscraper historian Carol Willis has termed “invisible Monopoly,” after the real estate board game) that has allowed these super-tall, super-thin towers to multiply in Midtown North, as planners and police call the neighborhood.

Although several similar towers are planned around 23rd Street near Madison Square and in Lower Manhattan, the rarefied calculus of this niche market hinges on location. Thus, even though seasoned New Yorkers have long deemed Central Park South somewhat socially marginal—during the 1980s brokers dubbed it “Mistress Row” for the many kept women with apartments there—or the province of out-of-towners who frequented its fancy…

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