432 Park. Source: Macklowe Properties / CIM. (Fair use.)

432 Park. Source: Macklowe Properties / CIM. (Fair use.)

Matthew Gordon Lasner, who teaches at Hunter College, believes they should. (He also provides a nice, succinct history of residential shared-ownership arrangements in the United States.) There has been an uptick recently in the amount of ink spilled about luxury condominiums as cash-stashes, rather than residences. The Times has been running a series called ‘Towers of Secrecy’, and New York magazine had a long-form article last June about the same phenomenon. The statistic that struck me most from the New York article:

The Census Bureau estimates that 30 percent of all apartments in the quadrant from 49th to 70th Streets between Fifth and Park are vacant at least ten months a year.

So, in a city with no affordable market housing, much the best residential real estate sits almost completely vacant. Wonderful. If the laws can be tweaked to discourage this, they should be. Lasner suggests limits on the numbers of absentee or anonymous buyers — I think those kinds of measures could help.

Still, the results of this development trend are a mixed bag for New York City, even in the realm of social equity. When I worked on Mount Laurel analysis at Rutgers (for New Jersey’s constitutionally-mandated affordable housing programs), one of the factors that we analyzed was filtering — or, the tendency of new, market-rate units to take some of the price pressure off of the existing housing stock. In theory, at least, a larger number of units in a particular region will bring down the degree of competition for housing units, across the board. So, even the development of incredibly expensive luxury units ought to have some knock-on effect for housing affordability in the local market, by taking wealthy buyers out of competition for (and gentrification of) existing units in the same city.

111 West 57. Source: SHoP Architects. (Fair use.)

111 West 57. Source: SHoP Architects. (Fair use.)

Finally, on a purely aesthetic level, I do like the architecture of many of the city’s new sliver skyscrapers. Vishaan Chakrabarti, in particular (who led the design of 111 West 57th Street, above), has an incredible eye, and a vision of urbanism that goes far beyond luxury investment units. Technology allows for the development of slender, elegant towers that were physically impossible in the past. They represent the forefront of engineering and design, and some of them are truly striking. Beautiful architecture — even if it contains private spaces — can still bring value to everyone who spends time in the city.

The Roman Forum. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Roman Forum. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

This week, a lot of media outlets covered anthropologist Scott Ortman’s recently published paper, Settlement Scaling and Increasing Returns in an Ancient Society, which analyzes the growth of cities in ancient Mexico to argue that the efficiency incentives that are driving urbanization today were also intrinsic to the growth of cities in ancient times.

I’m not sure I buy the authors’ basic assumption that the scale of monument construction can be used as a reliable metric for the incentives of urbanism. (This strikes me as a classic social scientist’s attempt to quantify something that should have been analyzed more liberally.) But, apart from that, the paper highlights something urbanists intuitively understand: cities become more productive, and dynamic, with growth. And Ortman’s work adds to the evidence that urbanists crave, namely, that people have long been drawn to urban settings by their opportunities, as well as by their mystique.

The urbanism of the Classical world offered lots of (non-numerical) ancient examples of large cities as better engines for economic and cultural output. Athens, in the fifth century B.C., was the largest city in the Greek world — and also the center of learning, artisanship, and trade, within that universe. Likewise, Alexandria was the economic and cultural capital of the Near East, during Hellenistic times; and Rome, for the entire Mediterranean basin in the first and second centuries, A.D. Modern examples might include London in the 19th century, and New York in the first half of the 20th.

Mayor Bill De Blasio used his 2015 State of the City address, delivered at Baruch College, to focus on the stakes of New York City’s affordable housing crisis, and how his administration intends to address it. Powerful.

Greene St and Prince St One Way signs, Soho. New York City 2005

Frank Thurston Green has a piece on the political role of street signs at — where else? — a page called New York City Street Signs.


A vision of Hudson Yards. Source: KPF (fair use).

This story is consistent with what I’ve been hearing, and it suggests that the growing unionization of the New York metropolitan workforce is being driven by strength in the real estate sector.

It’s going to be a strong few years for new construction in the Tri-state area. Hudson Yards is now seriously getting underway; the Cornell-Technion project is gaining momentum; and the redevelopment of the World Trade Center continues. Add to these the residential booms in Northern Brooklyn and Western Queens; the blue-collar renaissance of the West Bronx; de Blasio’s push for more affordable housing units, citywide; the commodification of NYC residential units, and the sliverscrapers it has spawned; and the potential upzoning of East Midtown; and it’s hard to miss seeing that New York real estate is entering a significant phase of expansion. If confidence fades, this could change, but a lot of these projects are already approved and financed, and right now the momentum remains strong.

This, right now, is a heyday for New York City. America may still be in moderately bad shape, post-2008, but New York City has never been wealthier, safer, more polished, or more in demand. The uptick in local construction activity is creating a lot of new union jobs in Greater New York, which is good for working people’s incomes — and it signals their growing political clout, as well.


1928 plan.

The MetLife North Building is situated at 11 Madison Avenue, between East 24th and East 25th Streets. Begun in 1928 as the new headquarters of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., it was annexed to the historic MetLife Tower (completed in 1909, and modeled on the Venetian Campanile de San Marco) just next door, at the corner of East 23rd. Note the grand entryways at each of the four corners of the block, and the layers of stepbacks — quite a bit of design detail for an awkwardly proportioned, 29-story building.

It seems that the MetLife North was originally slated to be the tallest building in the world when ground was broken. Here’s a scale model of the original design (right), with 100 floors. But construction was stopped abruptly in 1933, as the Great Depression settled in and New York real estate ground to a near halt. After the war, the building was wrapped up at its current height — the tower was never built.