Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat
CTBUH New York Debates: Has New York Built Too Tall?
Thursday, 1 March 2018

See more on CTBUH Related Events
See more on CTBUH New York
See more on CTBUH "Future Leaders" Committees


NEW YORK CITY – On March 1, the CTBUH New York "Future Leaders" Committee and the Institution of Civil Engineers collaborated to host a debate among their respective members. Held on the East Side at the 11th Street Bar, guests enjoyed a relaxed atmosphere and a chance to network alongside some lively discussion.

The debate was moderated by Richard Giffen, Associate Principal at Arup, and was structured in an Oxford-style debate format, with participants aiming to sway the audience to their viewpoint with each speech. The divisive topic up for debate was “Has New York Built Too Tall?”

Adam Friedberg, Associate Principal at BuroHappold Engineering (left) and Ilkay Can-Standard, CTBUH New York "Future Leaders" Committee Co-Chair & Founder at GenX Design Technology (right), take the “Yes” position on the question “Has New York City Built Too Tall?”
Arguments in Favor

Arguing the “yes” proposition were Adam Friedberg, Associate Principal at BuroHappold Engineering and Ilkay Can-Standard, CTBUH NY "Future Leaders" Committee Co-Chair & Founder at GenX Design Technology. They began with the point that they were not against building tall per se, but rather in favor of smarter and longer-term planning that takes greater account of technology, and of cities taking a critical view of the real benefits and problems that come with both building tall and heavy technological investment.
Everyone in the room agreed that tall buildings that have been built over the past five to 10 years in New York City have not responded to the city’s housing needs. In fact, most of this construction has widened the gaps between high- and lower-income residents. The only people who can afford to live in luxury high-rise buildings are mainly foreign investors and owners who don’t use their apartments as their primary residences. In a way, this phenomenon has created a condition of “false density” and gentrification, consigning those who work in and serve the city to long commutes to and from distant residences. There are still numerous supertall buildings under planning review in New York, while those that have been built are having a hard time selling high-ticket apartments, and their owners are looking for ways to subdivide apartments into smaller units, so they can be sold for less, the debaters argued.

The “Yes" team also pre-emptively attacked the supposed “positives” of tall buildings, which are meant to save space and utilize the “dead” area occupying the air space above shorter buildings. But taking into account the actual usable space that remains after structural and mechanical requirements have been met, there is a lot of wasted space, especially when considering other impacts such as energy usage and carbon footprint. It doesn’t help that most studies and sustainability standards leave out the embodied energy of the materials used to construct the building. This makes new tall buildings especially egregious when compared with repurposing existing buildings. In addition to exacerbating economic imbalances, tall buildings also cast long shadows over parks, open space and private residences. They also put much pressure on infrastructure that is already crumbling.

Another point advanced was around the lessened need to work from offices due to technological advancements. Trends such as home-working, co-working, co-living, “living small,” and other concepts, in addition to the cost of living in the city, support the impetus to move further from city and to be more integrated with n

Friedberg answers a question from the audience.

Transportation infrastructure in New York City is at a breaking point. Using examples of groundbreaking technological innovation, such as the Falcon 9 rocket, the “Yes” camp argued that it is possible to build better, greener and more affordable transportation that negates the need for more skyscrapers in Central Business Districts. Furthermore, the land needed for tall building foundations could be used for other infrastructure improvements, such as storm water retention or creating community areas. It was suggested that the advantage of these tall buildings goes only to their inhabitants, many of whom are not even inhabiting the apartments they own.

In a broader sense, Can-Standard and Friedberg spoke about how tall buildings abrogate community and connection, vital aspects of the health and integrity of a neighborhood. They used the opposing structural dynamics of innovation hubs such as Silicon Valley, Cambridge and Chelsea, against skyscraper “canyons” commonly found in Asia, to cement their point that progress is sparked from street-level interactions, allowing people and ideas to interact, leading to start-up companies and new innovations.

The “Yes” team acknowledged that, around the world, many governments, developers and city planners are motivated to building to show off their economic power, citing the increasing net-to-gross ratios
distance between a skyscraper’s highest occupiable floor and its architectural top as proof. Studies have shown surprisingly tilted net-to-gross ratios between habitable and non-occupiable space, which inherently runs against what architecture is all about – providing habitation. Highlighting a topical example, the “Yes” team discussed current plans to build supertall buildings in Midtown East. JP Morgan Chase has assembled air rights in order to demolish its existing 52-story building and rebuild to a new height of 70 floors. It was argued that the amount of energy needed to demolish and build again, for the sole purpose of being taller, is extremely irresponsible, and sets a dangerous precedent for the city.
The “Yes” team also mentioned that New York’s very recent allowance of landmarked buildings passing air rights to neighboring buildings is being criticized. There seems to be an urgency for property owners to collect money through these kinds of negotiations, while in the end, the real cost of such development is paid by the citizens.  They stated that “We must start planning, not just for the next 20 years but the next 100, or 500 years, to make this city truly sustainable."

In summary, Friedberg and Standard concluded, just because we can build tall, doesn’t mean we should. With advances in technology making suburban life more sustainable, and a greater investment in transport infrastructure seeming likely, we need to reconsider where we are placing our tall buildings.

Jim Bushong, CTBUH NY "Future Leaders" Committee Education Committee Chair & Senior Associate and Design Director, FXCollaborative (left) and Richard Giffen, Associate
Principal, Arup
(right) take the "against" position.

Jeffrey Shumaker, Director of Urban Planning and Design, KPF, joined Bushong in arguing against the proposition that New York has built too tall.

Arguments in Opposition

Arguing against the proposition were Jim Bushong, CTBUH NY "Future Leaders" Committee Education Committee Chair & Senior Associate and Design Director at FXCollaborative and Jeffrey Shumaker, Director of Urban Planning and Design at KPF. Both speakers tackled the issue from a variety of angles.

The team began by stating a fact that was not up for debate: New York City's population is growing. The need for more structures is constant and there are only two options available to fulfill this: build up or build out. The idea of building out called into question the level of infrastructure currently needed to connect existing communities in New York, and the inefficiencies in relation to that. A very persuasive statistic was used: by building up, we require 80-90 percent less infrastructure. This does not take into account the additional reduction in energy usage resulting from increasing the city’s density, which could be up to 30 percent.

With density, the “No” team went on to highlight, comes access to jobs and amenities, improving social equality. The question for many large cities is not whether to densify, but how, and how to do this sustainably. Reinforcing these points, the “No” team provided examples of many denser, yet thriving, global cities such as Paris, Barcelona, Singapore and London.

The “No” team also put forward a compromise, noting that building up doesn’t have to mean a city full of skyscrapers. Zoning laws are in place to ensure that any increase in density would maintain the character of the surrounding neighborhood, and that especially tall construction would only occur where appropriate infrastructure was in place.

Bushong and Shumaker closed their argument by highlighting that the arena of discussion was not exclusive to Manhattan. The debate should, in fact, be taking into account all five boroughs on New York, and when looking at the city as a whole, the perception of its being “too tall” overall can certainly be called into question.

The lively discussion continued as attendees networked following the debate.