City Planner Discourages Task Force on Skyscraper Shadows

Several condos ranging from 780 to 1,550 feet tall have either been completed in the last year or are slated to be completed in the near future along the southern edge of Manhattan’s Central Park.
(Source: Google Maps)


New York City Planning Commissioner Carl Weisbrod defended the city’s approval process for several skyscrapers that have gone up or are slated to be built in midtown Manhattan on Thursday against mounting criticism that the buildings will shroud much of Central Park’s southern edge in shadows.

Midtown residents, nonprofit advocates and at least one real estate lobbyist crowded inside a City Council hearing room for a meeting in which the Parks and Recreation Committee considered legislation by councilmember Mark Levine, chair of the committee, that would establish a task force of city officials to study the shadows created by existing and proposed towers.  

In his testimony, Weisbrod discouraged the idea of the task force, saying it would be at odds with the city’s plan for growing central Manhattan. He also backed the contentious “as of right” process, which allows developers to purchase air rights from shorter buildings in surrounding areas in order to build higher on smaller lots.

“We’re looking at overall growth in the city in a reasonably restrained way,” Weisbrod said. “We’re not increasing development rights, we’re just allowing them within a certain area to shift.”

Levine countered that the air rights transfer guidelines allow developers who would normally be restricted to building heights of 500 feet to purchase neighboring air rights up to double that limit without ever having to go before the Planning Commission or a similar public review process.

Opponents say the air rights zoning scheme enables secretive talks between developers and landowners who can then negotiate free of public scrutiny, but Weisbrod disagreed, saying the ability to transfer air rights has been a part of the city’s zoning resolution “since time immemorial.”

The city’s planning chief stressed that the process allows the city to encourage denser growth in midtown and lower Manhattan’s business areas, adding that height limits are stricter in the city’s more residential areas.

Additional scrutiny on projects borne out of air rights transfers, Weisbrod said, “could be highly discouraging, and in my view counterproductive, to what we need to do as a city to grow.”

Levine, who in March introduced the bill that would establish a task force, said in his opening testimony that the effect of building several towers on the southern edge Central Park will be “dramatic.”

“Models of the shadows they will cast show that vast stretches of the park will be covered in shade for much of the day and much of the year,” Levine said.

Levine’s bill would create a task force of city officials from the planning commission, the Department of Buildings, the Department of Environmental Protection and other agencies who would meet twice a year and recommend practices to monitor and regulate buildings that impose shadows over city parkland.

Some at the hearing urged the City Council to go further. Kate Wood, president of the nonprofit Upper West Side advocacy group Landmark West, argued for a moratorium on all new construction that would cast shadows into parkland.

“We have already sacrificed enough,” Wood said in her testimony. “The reactive tools that we have to analyze these impacts are not working … I see this task force as a necessary first step, but every day that the task force labors over this, the city is continually diminished.”

Because the Midtown tower projects the result of air rights transfers, they only have to comply with the existing zoning scheme, which Levine emphasized dates back to 1961.

Other projects in the city known as “discretionary actions,” without the benefit of an air rights transfer, are subjected to an environmental review process that takes into account whether the shadows cast by a building would interfere with the sunlight destined for the city’s parks.

Alyssa Konon, assistant commissioner at the Department of Parks and Recreation, said that under city guidelines for discretionary actions, four to six hours of blocked sunlight during the period between March and October would be the tipping point for determining whether a building affect neighboring parkland.

The fate of the task force, at this point, remains unclear. Tyrone Stevens, Levine’s communications director, said the hearing was a chance to flesh out the idea of the task force with Weisbrod present.

After the meeting drew to a close, Levine said in a statement that he looks forward to continuing the conversation with his colleagues and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration.

Layla Gisiko, the chair of Community Board 5’s Central Park Sunshine Task Force, said that the proposed towers, which are largely residential buildings, should be subject to the same review as those in residential areas.

Gisiko echoed the criticism of city councilmembers at the hearing, who contended that there should be a way to notify the public when a skyscraper that would block out sunlight on city parkland is approved through an air rights transfer.

“These new glass towers have become the epitome of opacity in so many ways,” Gisiko said. “It’s hard to tell where they will be or who owns the buildings.”

Gisiko also took issue with the mitigation efforts mentioned by the parks and recreation department’s Konon, such as the planting of “shade-tolerant” vegetation.

“I want to make it clear,” Gisiko said, “that humans will not be shade-tolerant.”