Skinny Towers and the Letter of the Law

 

The local news had a story the other day that they teased as a “David vs. Goliath” battle. In this story, the “David” was the little guys living in $3-5 million apartments. “Goliath” was developers building $10-40 million apartments for the superrich. So, even a one-percenter can be the “little guy” when up against the 0.1%.

The issue here is new super tall, but skinny, skyscrapers being built that will block the views of those in some of the older buildings. A few years back I started to notice some of these residential towers while looking at the midtown skyline from the Jersey side. In the past, the really tall buildings were iconic ones like the Empire State Building or the Chrysler Building. These new towers have none of the styling of the older buildings and are just very thin rectangles sticking up into the sky.

The controversy here has to do with the zoning laws. There are limits to the residential square footage allowed in a building. That, however, does not include any structural or mechanical spaces. Since a 90th-floor apartment can be sold for much more than a 40th-floor unit, developers add numerous mechanical spaces to help them push the residential spaces skyward.

432 Park Avenue stands 1,400 feet tall. According to the New York Times, a large percentage of that space is designated as mechanical:

But 432 Park also has an increasingly common feature in these new towers: swaths of unoccupied space. About a quarter of its 88 floors will have no homes because they are filled with structural and mechanical equipment.

These voids allow for a taller building with penthouses in the $30 million range.

Exploiting this loophole may seem a little sleazy to some, but it is also very clever. In a bigger sense, it shows a problem that goes beyond construction and zoning laws. Laws are more complicated than they need to be and the people voting on them don’t know what they are voting for. When politicians try to regulate things they don’t understand, they are going to mess up.

This is true for too many issues. Politicians who call every rifle an AR-15, who don’t understand the difference between automatic and semi-automatic, who judge weapons by appearance rather than firepower, they want to give us “common sense” gun laws. They give tax credits for things like solar and wind, when no one knows what form the next great innovation might take. Where else do you see regulations that don’t do what they were meant to do because politicians got in their own way?

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There are 17 comments.

  1. Bishop Wash Member

    Vance Richards: Exploiting this loophole may seem a little sleazy to some, but it is also very clever. In bigger sense, it shows a problem that goes beyond construction and zoning laws. Laws are more complicated than they need to be and the people voting on them don’t know what they are voting for. When politicians try to regulate things they don’t understand, they are going to mess up.

    Reminds me of a story I heard on a podcast years ago. I think Victor Davis Hanson was the guest and he’d recently visited Greece. He noticed that a lot of the houses had some exposed concrete/rebar on a corner. The response to his question why was that a house under construction was taxed at a lower rate, so people never fully completed construction. I think that was the story, it’s been a few years.

    • #1
    • August 12, 2019, at 12:59 PM PDT
    • 7 likes
  2. Full Size Tabby Member

    Some have argued that at least a part of the car-buying public’s embrace of large pickup trucks and SUV’s is because of the way the federal government’s fleet gas mileage mandate was set up. The government gas mileage mandate penalized car manufacturers for making large cars, so demand for large cars went into SUV’s and pickup trucks, which were in a separate “light truck” category in the government gas mileage mandate. 

    [I know there’s a counter argument that changing consumer tastes were the real driver, and that the government gas mileage mandate was not a big part of the change, but there’s at least the possibility that government mandates had an unintended consequence on the market.]

    • #2
    • August 12, 2019, at 1:25 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  3. Randy Webster Member

    Full Size Tabby (View Comment):
    The government gas mileage mandate penalized car manufacturers for making large cars, so demand for large cars went into SUV’s and pickup trucks, which were in a separate “light truck” category in the government gas mileage mandate. 

    I can see what this has to do with what the manufacturers produce, but I can’t see why it would increase demand, unless the mandates increased the prices of the cars inordinately.

    • #3
    • August 12, 2019, at 3:15 PM PDT
    • Like
  4. Vance Richards Member
    Vance Richards Post author

    Bishop Wash (View Comment):

    Vance Richards: Exploiting this loophole may seem a little sleazy to some, but it is also very clever. In bigger sense, it shows a problem that goes beyond construction and zoning laws. Laws are more complicated than they need to be and the people voting on them don’t know what they are voting for. When politicians try to regulate things they don’t understand, they are going to mess up.

    Reminds me of a story I heard on a podcast years ago. I think Victor Davis Hanson was the guest and he’d recently visited Greece. He noticed that a lot of the houses had some exposed concrete/rebar on a corner. The response to his question why was that a house under construction was taxed at a lower rate, so people never fully completed construction. I think that was the story, it’s been a few years.

    A few years ago an old house in my neighborhood was torn down and a new one was built in its place. Only thing is, they didn’t totally tear down the old one. They left one wall standing, propped up by 2 x 6’s. I assume that made it not a new construction but just an addition. No doubt once the new foundation and walls went up, that old wall came down (but it would have been on the inside by then).

    • #4
    • August 12, 2019, at 3:19 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  5. Randy Webster Member

    Vance Richards (View Comment):
    A few years ago an old house in my neighborhood was torn down and a new one was built in its place. Only thing is, they didn’t totally tear down the old one. They left one wall standing, propped up by 2 x 6’s. I assume that made it not a new construction but just an addition. No doubt once the new foundation and walls went up, that old wall came down (but it would have been on the inside by then).

    People are forced to do weird things in historic districts. I’ve bid on similar work.

    • #5
    • August 12, 2019, at 3:28 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  6. Arthur Beare Member

    To me, the building in the picture looks very likely to fall over.

    I hope the engineers really know what they are doing.

    Or maybe I don’t: nothing like a good catastrophe to bring this trend to a screeching halt.

    • #6
    • August 12, 2019, at 4:32 PM PDT
    • Like
  7. Vance Richards Member
    Vance Richards Post author

    Arthur Beare (View Comment):

    To me, the building in the picture looks very likely to fall over.

    I hope the engineers really know what they are doing.

    Or maybe I don’t: nothing like a good catastrophe to bring this trend to a screeching halt.

    Here is an article talking about some of the engineering behind these buildings.

    • #7
    • August 12, 2019, at 4:46 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  8. Randy Webster Member

    Arthur Beare (View Comment):

    To me, the building in the picture looks very likely to fall over.

    I hope the engineers really know what they are doing.

    Or maybe I don’t: nothing like a good catastrophe to bring this trend to a screeching halt.

    It probably has very deep piles and a lot of steel extending from them into the building.

    • #8
    • August 12, 2019, at 5:01 PM PDT
    • Like
  9. Arthur Beare Member

    Vince, thanks for the link. 

    The slosh dampers seem a little scary. What happens if you get a seiche going in one? I witnessed one in the swimming pool of a cruise ship and WOW, all that mass hurling itself violently back and forth, and not slowly either.

    • #9
    • August 12, 2019, at 6:46 PM PDT
    • Like
  10. James Lileks Contributor

    Bishop Wash (View Comment):
    Reminds me of a story I heard on a podcast years ago. I think Victor Davis Hanson was the guest and he’d recently visited Greece. He noticed that a lot of the houses had some exposed concrete/rebar on a corner. The response to his question why was that a house under construction was taxed at a lower rate, so people never fully completed construction. I think that was the story, it’s been a few years.

    ‘Twas me who told the tale. Happy to be conflated with VDH in your mind. ;)

    • #10
    • August 12, 2019, at 8:03 PM PDT
    • 9 likes
  11. Gary Robbins Reagan

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    Vance Richards (View Comment):
    A few years ago an old house in my neighborhood was torn down and a new one was built in its place. Only thing is, they didn’t totally tear down the old one. They left one wall standing, propped up by 2 x 6’s. I assume that made it not a new construction but just an addition. No doubt once the new foundation and walls went up, that old wall came down (but it would have been on the inside by then).

    People are forced to do weird things in historic districts. I’ve bid on similar work.

    I was told by a real estate attorney that his office was where a historic home was “renovated” to its foundation and then built like an office.

    • #11
    • August 12, 2019, at 10:40 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  12. Gary Robbins Reagan

    James Lileks (View Comment):

    Bishop Wash (View Comment):
    Reminds me of a story I heard on a podcast years ago. I think Victor Davis Hanson was the guest and he’d recently visited Greece. He noticed that a lot of the houses had some exposed concrete/rebar on a corner. The response to his question why was that a house under construction was taxed at a lower rate, so people never fully completed construction. I think that was the story, it’s been a few years.

    ‘Twas me who told the tale. Happy to be conflated with VDH in your mind. ;)

    James, it is so nice to see your Ready Kilowatt Icon again.

    • #12
    • August 12, 2019, at 10:49 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  13. Bishop Wash Member

    James Lileks (View Comment):

    Bishop Wash (View Comment):
    Reminds me of a story I heard on a podcast years ago. I think Victor Davis Hanson was the guest and he’d recently visited Greece. He noticed that a lot of the houses had some exposed concrete/rebar on a corner. The response to his question why was that a house under construction was taxed at a lower rate, so people never fully completed construction. I think that was the story, it’s been a few years.

    ‘Twas me who told the tale. Happy to be conflated with VDH in your mind. ;)

    You’re welcome. Did I get the other part right? Was it a tax dodge?

    • #13
    • August 13, 2019, at 8:10 AM PDT
    • Like
  14. Unsk Member

    Vance: “A few years ago an old house in my neighborhood was torn down and a new one was built in its place. Only thing is, they didn’t totally tear down the old one. They left one wall standing, propped up by 2 x 6’s. I assume that made it not a new construction but just an addition. No doubt once the new foundation and walls went up, that old wall came down (but it would have been on the inside by then).”

    In California, that practice is common and usually a dodge around the County Assessor assessing the house as a “new house” rather than a remodel. Under Prop 13 older houses with a remodel are assessed often at far lesser values than a new house. It can mean a difference of thousands of dollars in property taxes a year. 

    • #14
    • August 13, 2019, at 9:46 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  15. Unsk Member

    When local government writes zoning and planning regulations, they often come out as a very blunt instrument with much collateral damage inflicted on the local community, despite all the “good” intentions of our Progressive Planners.

    While the issue of super tall New York skyscrapers is not even on my radar on the list of most pressing urban issues to be addressed, it is an example of what can happen when government gets involved in any issue.

    Because almost all prominent urban centers are dominated politically by the Progressives, planning regulations in those areas are heavily skewed to favor the Progressive agenda and actually making the world a better place, despite all the rhetoric is not high on the Progressive agenda – gaining even more power and rewarding their benefactors is. Gaining Power and Control is actually paramount.

    In a better world, our whole system of regulation would be thoroughly overhauled. 

    We live in an ever increasing complex world. Our betters in government simply are not even close to being educated sufficiently in how to deal with our complex world, and otherwise do not have the political inclination with very good reason to look at the multiple and often very complex consequences of new regulations.

     If they were inclined to look at real world consequences, then a multi-faceted intensive cost-benefit analysis of each new proposed regulation would be demanded where all the often unforeseen social, environmental, economic and aesthetic effects would be thoroughly investigated. The problem here of course is many of the Progressive’s Left’s most cherished program scams would be exposed under any honestly thorough analysis. Oops. 

    All that said, many of the Left’s favorite programs and gambits have come about under the justification of the Constitutional rubric of the “General Welfare Clause” a one sentence phrase of Article 1,Section 8 which reads ” the US Constitution grants Congress the power… to pay the Debts and provide for the common defense and general Welfare of the United States”, and from that many Progressives claim it gives the feds the authority to do almost anything imaginable as long as it “promotes the general welfare”. Since this interpretation grants almost unlimited authority, one would have expected that somewhere along the line that the Courts would actually ask Congress and the bureaucrats that use this clause to actually prove that their handy dandy often unlimited regulations actually do “promote the general Welfare”. But no, that has never been done and so our regulators have gone on regulating to their heart’s content without often ever considering the real world consequences of their acts. 

    It would seem a good first step to healing our great nation and solving a great many of it’s problems, and if we are to recognize the “General Welfare Clause”, that we would then ask our regulators to thoroughly and in an unbiased way investigate all the impacts of their regulation and actually prove that their regulation does actually improve the General Welfare. 

     

     

     

    • #15
    • August 13, 2019, at 10:23 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  16. Gatomal Member

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    Full Size Tabby (View Comment):
    The government gas mileage mandate penalized car manufacturers for making large cars, so demand for large cars went into SUV’s and pickup trucks, which were in a separate “light truck” category in the government gas mileage mandate.

    I can see what this has to do with what the manufacturers produce, but I can’t see why it would increase demand, unless the mandates increased the prices of the cars inordinately.

    The SUV/minivan embrace by consumers was due to the manufacturing death of the station wagon due to federal mandates on gas mileage for cars.

    https://www.futureofcapitalism.com/2019/07/how-regulation-killed-the-station-wagon

     

     

    • #16
    • August 13, 2019, at 5:31 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  17. RandR Member

    Bishop Wash (View Comment):

    Vance Richards: Exploiting this loophole may seem a little sleazy to some, but it is also very clever. In bigger sense, it shows a problem that goes beyond construction and zoning laws. Laws are more complicated than they need to be and the people voting on them don’t know what they are voting for. When politicians try to regulate things they don’t understand, they are going to mess up.

    Reminds me of a story I heard on a podcast years ago. I think Victor Davis Hanson was the guest and he’d recently visited Greece. He noticed that a lot of the houses had some exposed concrete/rebar on a corner. The response to his question why was that a house under construction was taxed at a lower rate, so people never fully completed construction. I think that was the story, it’s been a few years.

    That very thing happened to my father in law. He bought a small house in northern Wisconsin for retirement and began to expand it. One day the local assessor came by to see his nearly completed kitchen. The assessor suggested he leave one door off the new cabinets and put a curtain over the opening. This would leave the kitchen uncompleted and the law was that it could not be taxed until “completed”, which he never did. He did the same for all other additions , bathroom, etc and never was taxed for their value.

    • #17
    • August 13, 2019, at 6:16 PM PDT
    • 2 likes