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New York City is getting taller and taller

The city of skyscrapers is seeing another race to the top, despite a growing glut that could take years to sell off

New York's skyline today looks starkly different from a decade ago, redrawn by the massive Hudson Yards project on the West Side of Manhattan; a profusion of towers on and around Billionaires' Row in Midtown; and the revitalisation of Lower Manhattan, with One World Trade Center leading the way.

New York

NEW YORK has long been a city in the clouds, but with 16 buildings around 500 feet or taller slated for completion this year, 2019 could be the American city's busiest year ever for new skyscrapers.

For many years the city's skyline was primarily defined by the Empire State and Chrysler buildings, both more than 1,000 feet tall and built in the early 1930s. But New York's horizon has been in perpetual flux now for the better part of a decade.

There are currently nine completed towers in New York that are more than 1,000 feet tall, and seven of them were built after 2007.

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Nearly twice that many - another 16 such towers - are being planned or are under construction, according to the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, a Chicago-based nonprofit that tracks high-rise construction.

The scale of this new wave of construction is unprecedented.

New York's skyline looks starkly different than it did a decade ago, redrawn by the massive Hudson Yards project on the West Side of Manhattan; a profusion of towers on and around Billionaires' Row in Midtown; and the revitalisation of Lower Manhattan, with One World Trade Center leading the way.

The recent rezoning of Midtown East will cut even more of the skyline into unfamiliar silhouettes. And new heights will soon be reached in Brooklyn and Queens as well, thanks to luxury apartment high-rises.

Why now? A confluence of factors, from advances in technology to a surge in luxury apartment speculation, has encouraged developers to build taller and leverage old zoning codes not designed for recent engineering breakthroughs.

Some have called these zoning loopholes exploitive. New office towers like the ones that captured New York's imagination a generation ago are also rising - although they now share the roost with multimillion-dollar condos.

The new skyline is surprising, in part, because of the velocity of newcomers. The Empire State Building won a closely watched, three-horse race in 1931 when it raised its much-guarded spire to 1,250 feet, outdoing the recently finished Chrysler Building (1,047 feet) and the tower at 40 Wall St, now known as the Trump Building (927 feet).

That record remained unbroken, the skyline essentially unchanged, until 1972, when the World Trade Center topped out at 1,368 feet.

The city was devastated when the twin towers fell in 2001, and "people experienced the gap in the skyline viscerally", said Judith Dupré, an architectural historian and author of books on skyscrapers.

It was fitting, then, that the new One World Trade Center, completed in 2014, set a record height at a symbolic 1,776 feet. (Without the spire, the roof is 1,368 feet tall.)

One World Trade remains the tallest building in the city, but it has been joined recently by a spate of other megatowers, most of them residential.

This marks a major shift from a skyline dominated by office space and executive suites to one increasingly focused on securing the best views for well-heeled residents.

In 1908, when the Singer Building in Lower Manhattan became the first in the city to rise above 500 feet, only 26 per cent of buildings of that height were designed for residential use, according to the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat.

Since 2010, 64 per cent (including projects under construction) have been residential, most of them luxury condos.

"The price trend definitely correlates with height," said Jonathan Miller, president of real estate appraisal firm Miller Samuel, who noted that unobstructed views became a must for the most pricey apartment buildings of the last decade.

Motivation aside, it is technology that has enabled the height of the latest towers.

"It's because we can," said Stephen DeSimone, chief executive of DeSimone Consulting Engineers, who has worked on a number of new supertall buildings.

Stronger concrete, faster, more efficient elevators and sophisticated computer modelling have allowed developers to build taller and skinnier on sites that used to require much wider bases, he said.

Engineering solutions have also meant zoning loopholes. Developers are generally constrained in New York by a land-use calculation that determines the allowable height and bulk of a building.

The ability to build thinner, and therefore cover less of the lot, has allowed developers to create very tall projects in some neighborhoods "as of right", without petitioning the city and going through a lengthy review process, said Frank Chaney, a lawyer with Rosenberg & Estis, a real estate law firm.

One popular way to achieve greater height is to buy the unused development potential, or air rights, of adjacent properties, to amass a larger building.

Critics argue that some new towers have also exploited the zoning code by creating excessively tall mechanical rooms that do not count toward a developer's allotted square footage, but nonetheless effectively push apartments skyward for higher premiums.

Even amid the flurry of new construction, which includes a number of innovative designs, some complain that there isn't the same sense of wonder there once was for skyscrapers.

"The awe that accompanies a new supertall is now tempered by the economic reality for many city residents that they simply can no longer afford to live in their beloved city," Dupré said.

Others fault the glassy sameness of many new towers.

But there are signs that the supertall boom may be slowing, at least in the short term, Miller Samuel's Mr Miller said. Much of the recent development was driven by the luxury condo market, which peaked around 2016, and there is a glut of new unsold apartments.

At the current pace of sales, he said it would take nine years to sell those 9,000 unsold units. Enough time, perhaps, for developers to plan the next wave of mega-towers. NYTIMES