rendering judgment

262 Fifth Is the Skinny di Tutti Skinnies

Photo: Meganom

There are superthin supertalls and then there is 262 Fifth Avenue, the residential tower rising on a formidably small site at the corner of Fifth and 29th. For most of its height, the building’s apartment floors are near squares of a little more than 45 feet per side, augmented with a kind of service wing on the west face that contains elevators and exit stairs. (Its base incorporates a much chunkier 12-story prewar, 260 Fifth, next door.) The building — its structure now framed out to about the 20th floor or so, a little past where New York YIMBY noted it was in May — is going to be 860 feet tall, giving it a height-to-width proportion of nearly 20 to 1. The most visible tall-and-skinny apartment building so far has been 432 Park Avenue, and though it reaches much higher, at 1,397 feet, its proportions are considerably stumpier, about 15 to 1. People routinely describe these towers as “pencil-thin,” but 262 Fifth, even more than the others, truly does look as though the consulting architect were Eberhard Faber.

Incredibly, that giant will contain only 26 apartments — reduced from 41 — on its 56 floors, according to Crain’s. At first blush, that sounds ridiculous, but it’s surely related to the small footprint. A building like this is inevitably marketed to the very rich, and the very rich want more bedrooms (for all those kids) and an astounding number of bathrooms. The developer has solved that by combining apartments vertically into duplexes, triplexes, and likely one quadruplex. Four 1,600-square-foot floors is a pretty big suburban house, plucked from Saddle River and hoisted up above Fifth Avenue. Yours for only … well, nobody’s saying yet. In 2017, The Real Deal picked up a presale filing suggesting a $75 million asking price for a triplex. A lot has changed in both this building and the luxury market since then, but that does give at least some idea of the financial neighborhood this building occupies.

Of course, it is absurd for this to happen when we’re in a housing crisis, but the economics of Fifth Avenue apartments are their own universe, set apart from the screaming need for more affordable places to live. (The failure there is one of tax policy more than land use.) Indeed, there was a ripple of outrage when this tower’s configuration was announced, but it didn’t get far. The small buildings it replaced, while charming, were not extraordinary enough for a real landmarks fight, and the tower is built as of right, so it didn’t require variances. (It will eventually get a shorter dance partner across the street, too. Three West 29th was, until this past fall, going to be a slim 34-story office tower, not nearly as tall as 262 but similarly gleaming and new. The site has been cleared, at the cost of one very handsome old building, but construction has been put on hold, presumably owing to the looming office-space glut. Something tall will obviously go there in the future.)

The aesthetic griping about 262 has basically come down to “It’s tacky and it mars the skyline.” The view of the Empire State Building from the plaza by the Flatiron Building will, it’s true, forever be changed by this thing, and the tunnel-like structure covering the roof-deck — a megapergola? — is a lot less of a landmark than the Empire State’s own chrome-steel finial, conceived in wild optimism as a mooring mast for dirigibles and soon repurposed as an antenna-holder. I wish we were getting a better building blocking our view; apart from that hoop on top, this one is not very interesting. But that, too, is the New York way. Developers are financial architects rather than aesthetic ones, and a lot of them have mediocre taste.

That said, I hold an unpopular view about these supertall apartment towers as a class, which is that, though they represent something grotesque in our economy, they are not an aesthetic crime. The criticism I hear over and over is that the thin row of spikes along 57th Street is appalling, especially as seen from Central Park. “Out of scale,” people say. “Too tall.” But we have been pushing that scale upward for a century and a half. The New York worldview is one of taller-taller-taller, not smoothly but in jagged leaps, and resistance to that is most often driven by recency bias. If you grew up in the five-story-walk-up city of the 19th century, you perhaps thought the 15-story apartment blocks of 1920 were ominous and inhuman. If you grew up in one of those apartment buildings a generation later, you perhaps would have thought Rockefeller Center was a grandiose nightmare. (Lewis Mumford, the greatest architecture critic of his era, called its conception and planning a set of “gigantic blunders.”) We’re now living in the latest iteration of that cycle, and to me it’s more exciting than demoralizing. Remember that the Empire State Building itself was, in the words of Edmund Wilson, “dehumanized” and “bankrupt.” It was disruptive to the urban fabric because it was so goddamned big, and now it’s defended as a vital piece of that same material. If you dislike a city that keeps outflanking itself, biting into ever larger pieces of the sky — well, New York has always been that place, and we should not quit just because you liked the more modest (!) city you moved to.

I do see one other point worth considering about 262, though. It is highly unlikely that a building so slim can avoid flexing in the wind. The question is whether it will move enough to be noticeable. Residents in other supertalls have reported unsettling stories, and one of them, 432 Park, has had highly publicized height-related problems. They are not unsafe — at least while the elevators work — but an apartment that moves around is disconcerting. This tower is proportionally thinner and (because it’s smaller) lighter in weight than all of those buildings. They can do a lot these days with improved concrete and smart engineering, but I have a suspicion that whoever buys that quadruplex on top is in for some unexpected movement. The toilets in those many bathrooms may end up sloshing around on windy days. I hope I’m wrong about that, for the sake of everyone’s bathroom time, but I’d say to any potential buyer: Before you put your money down, just try to drop by on a stormy day.

262 Fifth Is the Skinny di Tutti Skinnies