street view

The Supertalls Have Walled In Central Park

Even from deep inside the park, the supertalls are impossible to not see.

CENTRAL PARK, NEW YORK, USA - SEPTEMBER 15, 2023. Sightseeing tourists waiting to take photos for social media in a popular viewpoint in Central Park
Photo: Clare Jackson/Alamy Stock Photo
CENTRAL PARK, NEW YORK, USA - SEPTEMBER 15, 2023. Sightseeing tourists waiting to take photos for social media in a popular viewpoint in Central Park
Photo: Clare Jackson/Alamy Stock Photo

Just about every week for 30 years, I’ve paused in the middle of Central Park to look over its expanse at the stockade of towers to the south: copper-roofed Beaux-Arts palaces, Art Deco ziggurats, mid-century slabs, twiggy condos, tapering glass Alps. The cluster has grown and thickened in that time; I’ve watched at least 15 of those skyscrapers go up, lined up like telephone poles. There are more on the way. Foster + Partner’s JP Morgan headquarters at 270 Park Avenue, a full ten blocks south and a quarter-mile high, is still unfinished, but its beefy bulk is already overweening. Snøhetta’s 50 West 66th Street leads a flanking maneuver up the West Side. This latest generation of megabuildings represents something more radical than incremental growth: a system of global financing and advances in engineering that are redefining the word tall. They herald real estate’s next sky grab, the race to raise the steel-and-glass cliff of midtown until Central Park begins to feel less like an oasis and more like a base camp. The city is closing in.

Frederick Law Olmsted designed Central Park as an urban refuge. To him, a swath of green in the city was not a rural wilderness but a glorious artifice, designed to create a sequence of theatrical illusions. He directed each footstep, managed every view and sound and breath. He curved paths, hid glades, and sprung surprises. He was an auteur of the multisensory experience. One crucial element of this landscape of pleasure was the relationship with the gridded city beyond, which Olmsted saw as a kind of jail, nudging its residents toward illness and despair. The park was conceived to be therapeutic, to cleanse air saturated with disease and minds befogged by anxiety. Once, I read those benefits metaphorically — that is, until the spring of 2020, when Central Park suddenly became a literal haven of safe air and sanity. (Except in the North Meadow, where the world’s misery broke through in the form of a COVID field hospital.)

To protect that tranquility from urban clamor, Olmsted gave the park a perimeter nearly free of high fences, portals, or ceremonial gates. Instead, he opted for a low, rusticated stone wall, chinked by footpaths and lined with trees that would provide separation but not enclosure. He didn’t want visitors to feel like they were strolling around a prettified cage, and he believed that the city would in any case be largely invisible from these 843 acres, occluded by topography and trees. That invisibility was essential to his definition of an urban park, which, he wrote in 1870, needed “a simple, broad, open space of clean greensward,” surrounded by a “depth of wood enough … to completely shut out the city from our landscapes.”

The skyline long ago broke clear of Olmsted’s barrier of trees, at least from certain points of view. By the 1930s, great stone masses were mounting up along Central Park South: The Plaza Hotel opened in 1907, the Essex House joined it in 1929, and more Art Deco piles poked up in the blocks just south. If you looked across the Great Lawn in the early 1980s, you would have followed a wavy line above the treetops that passed from the Solow Building at 9 West 57 Street, its black glass framed in a mass of white travertine, to the pin-striped GM Building on Fifth Avenue, both roughly 700 feet tall. Farther east, on Lexington Avenue, the peak of the ski-slope roof of the Citigroup Building reaches over 900 feet.

By 1930, a line of tall buildings had already passed the tree line on Central Park South. Photo: MCNY/Gottscho-Schleisner/Getty Images
1951: The prewar lineup had barely changed. Photo: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images
By 1998, blocky modernist postwar towers filled in among the previous generation of buildings. Photo: Rudolf Dietrich/ullstein bild via Getty Images
2013: The 90 stories of One57 radically reset the scale. Photo: Oliver Morris/Getty Images

In the past decade, though, the skyline went through an astonishing growth spurt. At first, skinny thousand-footers sprouted to provide the ultrawealthy with dronelike overviews of Olmsted’s creation. Before long, the first generation of supertall towers looked puny alongside super-duper-talls like Central Park Tower and the pencil-stroke of 111 West 57th Street, whose topmost 200 feet are open to the weather and serve no function except to add height. I saw those buildings as standouts, gobbling up air rights so as to remain rare and preserve their expensive isolation. Now, though, exceptional height is becoming standard, and the spaces between posts are being filled in. The result is a skyline that’s no longer just a backdrop or a distant view or a pleasantly hard-edged contrast with the soft green clouds of woodland. Instead, it’s a constant presence, looming inescapably over virtually every corner of the park.

It’s impossible to write this sort of lamentation without recalling how regularly, and over how many decades, others have fired off similar protests. Most were aimed at the chaotic intensity of midtown itself. Observers noted the contrast between the heroic bristle of towers as seen from a distance and the hectic jams they created on the street. A famous 1945 photograph by Andreas Feininger, Noon Rush Hour, Fifth Avenue, shows what all those high-rises meant for life down at ground level: swarms of well-dressed office and shop workers packing the sidewalks, all trying to cram errands and a quick bite into the same lunchtime break. (He used a telephoto lens to collapse perspective and emphasize the crowding.) In 1955, the New Yorker critic Lewis Mumford warned that midtown’s skyscrapers had created a perpetual traffic nightmare. If Manhattan “ceases to be a milieu in which people can exist in reasonable contentment instead of as prisoners plotting to escape a concentration camp, it will be unprofitable to discuss architectural achievements,” he wrote.

A generation later, the Times’ architecture critic, Paul Goldberger, quoted Mumford’s dictum in a gloomy essay on density. “There is such a thing as being too crowded, and midtown Manhattan has become just that,” he wrote. “A place in which enormous buildings block out not just sun and sky, but one another; a place in which traffic moves not just slowly, but almost not at all; a place in which walking is not necessarily more practical than riding, because the sidewalks are as jammed as the streets.”

2019: From the Sheep Meadow, a rapidly changing view. Photo: Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images
2023: A new normal of 1,500-foot towers. Photo: Patti McConville/Alamy Stock Photo

I’ve never been especially sympathetic to the notion that too many buildings bring too many people — not in the capitalistic heart of Manhattan, anyway. In my lifetime, street-level midtown has always felt like a forest floor, shaded by tall trunks and teeming with ground-hugging creatures. Seen from the sidewalk, a 90-story building appears no more formidable than a 30-story one; the top is just up there, somewhere, out of sight. Besides, I miss the pedestrian gridlock. During the pandemic, the area acquired an eerie, horrifying quiet. Even now, the tourists are back but the rhythm of rush-hour footfalls, which would seem lively in most other downtowns, feels disconcertingly scant. These days, the congestion is all aloft. The 2017 rezoning of east midtown brought the 1,400-foot One Vanderbilt, with its drearily hallucinogenic observation deck. Another behemoth, designed by Skidmore Owings & Merrill, is likely to go up on the other side of Grand Central. These buildings’ bases sit at a distance from Central Park, but their crowns crowd its horizon, raising the high perimeter wall that Olmsted worked so hard to avoid.

The center of Manhattan was built on a tacit pact: The corporate district would go about its business as if nature had been banished from the island, and Central Park would keep bucolically burbling and whispering as if the tough city were merely a distant rumor. But the current generation of tall buildings has definitively reneged on that arrangement. Now, the park feels like Valhalla’s backyard, a lawn where we tiny humans scuttle through the grass while high-net-worth gods look down on us (unless the clouds at their feet get in the way). Can anyone stop that takeover of the air, that concrete eclipse? In theory, yes. Zoning rules are not natural law; they get constantly rewritten to guide development where it’s wanted and protect resources that are fragile or scarce. But we’re talking about midtown Manhattan here. It’s hard to see who will defend the magnetism of Central Park against the march of money and technology, or the never-satiated lust for height.

The Supertalls Have Walled In Central Park