Not since builders stuck a mooring mast on top of the Empire State Building, eclipsing the Chrysler Building as the world’s tallest building, have developers been engaged in the type of skyscraper war that New York City is now witnessing. But unlike the rivalries of the early 20th century, when buildings pierced the clouds to house corporate headquarters, this one involves no less than three condominiums with penthouses on the 90th floor and higher, which are being built to woo affluent American hedge funders, Chinese magnates and Russian oligarchs. Two of the towers will rise above the 1,250-foot-high Empire State Building, by 300 feet and 146 feet, respectively (although when its lighting rod is included, the Empire State Building officially tops off at 1,454 feet).
Building the world’s tallest towers is not for the faint of heart, and for modern-day developers it might be the ultimate statement of ego. New York is a business town and for developers, economics play as large a role as their desire to leave a mark on the skyline. It’s an economic proposition, a business plan with logic behind it. One that does not appear to be an irrational fad.
So while marketing for these structures might have you believe that it’s all about which building can reach farthest into the sky, the reality is more nuanced than that. For a skyscraper project to be successful, many pieces of the development puzzle have to fall precisely into place. There is the often the lengthy and arduous process of buying air rights — or unused development rights — from adjacent properties; borrowing hundreds of millions of dollars in financing; and developing architecturally unique structures that can rise 90 stories or higher. The construction, meanwhile, includes costly techniques to prevent the buildings from swaying in the wind, along with thicker support walls and columns that can scuttle some layout plans. Then there is the pure physicality of hoisting laborers and materials 1,000 feet into the air, sometimes creating safety delays and hazards.
Considering these complexities, and the fact that the real estate market is just now beginning to recover from one of its biggest crashes in decades, the pace of the skyscraper competition is breathtaking. Trump World Tower, opening in 2001 at 861 feet high — its black shadow looming above the East River on First Avenue — held the title of the city’s tallest residential building until 2011, with the opening of 8 Spruce Street, the 870-foot rental building at the base of the Brooklyn Bridge. Since then, developers have started six different projects that will shatter 8 Spruce’s record.
And even those that don’t quite break that record, developers still market their height as a selling tool. At 56 Leonard Street, for instance, the condominium is only 821 feet in height but much has been made of the fact that it will be the tallest residential tower in TriBeCa, charging as much as $50 million for a penthouse. The competition is even spreading beyond Manhattan, with the tallest building in Queens, a 50-story condominium in Long Island City, currently under way.