New York Skyline Sees Boom In Super Tall Skyscrapers

Dec 12, 2016
Originally published on December 13, 2016 7:47 am

More than a dozen super tall residential towers are under construction. Many of the global ultra-rich who buy these apartments spend just a fraction of the year in them. Critics say they're paying a much lower tax rate than full-time New York residents. But defenders say these luxury buildings support good jobs and contribute to the local economy.

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New York City's new skyscrapers are really tall. Some rise more than a thousand feet above the street. The super-tall buildings are feeding a growing demand for luxury housing. As NPR's Joel Rose reports, they're also spurring a debate among New Yorkers.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: New Yorkers will tell you they don't look up at the skyline. But some of these new buildings are so tall, so visible from everywhere you go, that people notice. 432 Park Ave. is one of those buildings.

What does it look like to you?

ANTONIO RIVERA: Looks like one of - I forgot what you call it - obelisk? Am I right?

JEROME LEWIS: A site like that would take forever to build. Like, if I was a construction worker, I'd be like job security.

RIVERA: I feel sorry for the guy that got to clean the windows (laughter).

ROSE: That was Antonio Rivera and Jerome Lewis of the Bronx. 432 Park Ave. is almost 1,400 feet tall, just a few stories shorter than the Empire State Building. The brand new tower is officially the tallest residential building in the western hemisphere. New York is having its biggest skyscraper boom in decades. And what's driving it?

JASON BARR: The money, really.

ROSE: Jason Barr teaches economics at Rutgers University - Newark and wrote a book about New York called "Building The Skyline." The city has had skyscraper booms before, but those were driven by demand for office space. What's different about this boom, says Barr, is that it's mostly about luxury housing.

BARR: For many people with a lot of money, investing in New York City real estate is a great idea. They get to come here a few times a year, let's say, and enjoy the fruits of the city. And at the same time they can have a safe return on their investment.

ROSE: One developer called these apartments safe deposit boxes with views because they're expected to hold their value. Apartments start around $10 million and go up from there to almost a hundred million. This is pretty much what former Mayor Michael Bloomberg had in mind when his administration changed zoning rules to make it easier to build super-tall towers. Billionaires would come to New York and buy apartments. They would spend money and they would pay taxes.

JAMES PARROTT: Actually, they don't pay a lot of taxes.

ROSE: James Parrott is an economist at the Fiscal Policy Institute, a liberal-leaning think tank in New York. He met me on a stretch of 57th St. in Midtown known as Billionaire's Row. He says these buyers don't generate as much tax revenue for the city as you might think.

PARROTT: If they're not residents of New York City, they're not paying any New York City income or New York state income tax. And these facilities actually aren't paying much in property taxes, either.

ROSE: And these apartments might be having unintended consequences for the rest of the city. Liz Krueger is a state senator who represents the East Side of Manhattan.

LIZ KRUEGER: It drives up the value of land and drives up the cost of real estate for the actual people who live here. So there is a negative consequence to our real estate market being so hot that everybody's piling up on any imaginable inch of space.

ROSE: That's debatable. Economists agree that affordable housing is a big problem in New York, as it is in many cities. But some dispute the notion that these luxury buildings are driving up the rent for low and middle income New Yorkers.

MITCHELL MOSS: There's a great myth that somehow the luxury apartments are taking housing from the poor.

ROSE: Mitchell Moss is a professor of urban planning at New York University. He says these buildings are going up mostly in neighborhoods that were already affluent. And Moss says they do create a lot of jobs and revenue.

MOSS: We're collecting taxes on the people who work there, the people who are buying the ornate furniture and flatware that goes in there. So a lot of money is being paid to our municipal treasury, if only for the paint and wallpaper which is being used in these buildings.

ROSE: There will be a lot more of these luxury apartments to decorate over the next few years. There are at least a dozen super-tall towers in the planning stages or already under construction. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.