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NY's latest 'supertall' skyscraper risks running into wall of resistance

Developer Macklowe plans to build 1,551-ft-tall Tower Fifth, making it city's 2nd tallest building if approved

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Seventeen "supertall" skyscrapers have been started or completed since the Great Recession, completely remaking New York City's traditional silhouette.

New York

FOR decades, the New York City skyline was dominated by one building, the 1,250-foot-tall (381m) Empire State Building.

But 17 "supertall" skyscrapers - defined as those over 984 feet in height by the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat - have been started or completed since the Great Recession, completely remaking the city's traditional silhouette. If developer Harry B Macklowe has his way, an 18th will soon join them.

Recently, Mr Macklowe submitted a preliminary application to the Department of City Planning outlining his intention to build a new super tower, east of Fifth Avenue between 51st and 52nd streets, overlooking St Patrick's Cathedral.

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If approved at 1,551 feet tall, his skyscraper, known as Tower Fifth, would rank as the second-tallest building not only in New York, but in the Western Hemisphere.

In the heady world of competitive building, Tower Fifth would hover 216 feet above the roofline of One World Trade Center - which would remain the city's tallest building because a mast brings its official height to 1,776 feet - and reach a scant 12 inches (30cm) above Central Park Tower, the skyscraper nearing completion on Billionaires' Row. But the proposed tower would have to clear significant hurdles before reshaping the city.

The project could impinge on five landmark buildings - the Look Building, two town houses, Rockefeller Center and St Patrick's Cathedral - so it will require approval by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. And it will need to survive a lengthy and gruelling city review.

Mr Macklowe is asking for special permits, zoning changes and approvals to build a tower in East Midtown that is 66 per cent bigger than would be allowed under current zoning.

The tower would be Mr Macklowe's second crack at shaping the city's skyline. His slender, white monolith at 432 Park Avenue is visible from New Jersey, Westchester County, and Long Island as it rises to its full height of 1,397 feet at 57th Street. For the time being, it is the tallest residential tower in the Western Hemisphere.

But critics have decried the social and environmental impact of the supertalls, especially along a stretch of 57th Street known as Billionaires' Row, where five of them are clustered. Many apartments are dark at night because many of the units have been sold to foreign owners who spend relatively little time in New York. Many New Yorkers are also dismayed by how their neighbourhoods have been rendered unrecognisable by the rising towers.

The proliferation of supertalls puts the city at risk of becoming "darker, drearier and more austere than its denizens deserve", the Municipal Art Society, a 125-year-old non-profit organisation, wrote in its 2017 report The Accidental Skyline, which was critical of what it called "loopholes in the city's existing regulations, which have been exploited to create larger buildings than ever intended by zoning".

Despite its reputation, New York has always had a schizophrenic attitude towards skyscrapers, inserting height restrictions and setbacks into the zoning code even as buildings climbed in height. But Mayor Bill de Blasio's administration seems to have tossed out the height inhibitions of even pro-development mayors such as Michael Bloomberg and Edward Koch, in part because Mr De Blasio is willing to trade additional floors for social benefits, such as affordable housing or subway improvements.

In the hope of gaining city approval, Mr Macklowe and his team - Dan Shannon of Moed de Armas & Shannon Architects and Gensler, a second architecture firm - shoehorned their tower onto the site in an attempt to mitigate its impact on the surroundings. They have also held preliminary meetings with the city's Planning Department, the Landmarks Preservation Commission and with members of the local community board with the hope of quelling potential opposition.

An 85-foot-high glass lobby would stretch from 52nd to 51st streets, where the entrance would dramatically frame the side-street doors to St Patrick's. Escalators would lead to the lower levels, restaurants, shops and elevators for the observatory. A glass-walled public auditorium would sit above the lobby and look onto the top of St Patrick's. The office tower itself, however, would step back from St Patrick's, rising on 52nd Street atop two stems or stilts, nearly 400 feet above the sidewalks.

The 96-storey tower is designed as a sleek shaft until it reaches the top, where a two-level slab juts out from the northern and southern sides of the building, before the tower resumes its ascent. The proposed building would cantilever about 100 feet over the Look Building and 300 feet above an adjoining landmark, the John Peirce house, which will almost certainly spark criticism from preservationists.

Mr Macklowe will have to cut a pricey deal with the owners of the Look Building and Peirce house for the cantilever and purchase roughly 580,000 square feet of unused development rights to get to the building's full height. Much of that will probably come from St Patrick's Cathedral.

Mr Macklowe boasted that his observatory would be the highest of the six existing or planned observatories in the city.

Daniel Garodnick, a former city councilman who played a key role in the city's rezoning of East Midtown for taller towers, was taken aback by Mr Macklowe's plan. "This project goes way beyond what is allowed to be built," Mr Garodnick said, "and it needs to be carefully scrutinised in a detailed public review." NYTIMES