Since 9/11, New York City's skyline has only grown taller

PASSAIC COUNTY, N.J. — When Felise Berman decided to buy her first house 20 years ago, her cousin, a real estate agent, suggested a listing in Clifton. “You’ve got to see the view,” she said.

Berman was moving from Manhattan and craved a quiet spot surrounded by nature. She went to look at the house, which is perched on the edge of Garret Mountain.

When she walked onto the back deck, she was stunned.

Spread before her, beyond the green trees of suburban North Jersey, stood Manhattan’s shimmering skyline, in a majestic sweep from the Upper West Side to the iconic Empire State Building in midtown, and on down to the Verrazano Bridge, spanning the Narrows in a delicate arc. At the tip of Manhattan stood the massive, silvery-gray Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.

Of course she bought the place. And each time she had guests, Berman shooed them to the back deck, where they reliably erupted with an “Oh wow!”

Berman lost a friend on Sept. 11, 2001 — a New York City firefighter in the north tower when it collapsed. “The view changed for me after 9/11,” she said. “I haven’t had the same love for the skyline since.”

Yet it still mesmerizes her. She likes winter sunrises best, when the sun reflects off the snow and Manhattan’s skyscrapers are silhouetted like abstract cutouts against the sky.

“There’s no moment when I take the view for granted,” she said. “It’s spectacular, and every day I am grateful for it.”

Shortly after the Twin Towers fell, there were predictions of the end of skyscrapers as a practical form of architecture. Others thought Ground Zero — hallowed ground — should not be rebuilt to such heights.

Yet, despite the searing emotional impact of the Sept. 11 attacks — and the economically stifling Great Recession of 2008 — the Manhattan skyline that Berman and other North Jersey residents know so well has been strikingly transformed.

In the decade and a half since the Twin Towers fell, 15 of Manhattan’s 35 tallest skyscrapers have been built. And others will soon join them.

There’s the most obvious difference — One World Trade Center, a torqued glass tower and tapered spire rising to a symbolic 1,776 feet where the Twin Towers stood. But new towers are pushing skyward all over Manhattan — both traditional office towers and slender new residential buildings that represent a confluence of economics, zoning laws and technological innovation.

Dr. Arno Fried, director of pediatric neurosurgery at Hackensack University Medical Center, saw the rising smoke at Ground Zero from the window of his office in the hospital complex 15 years ago. His current window has provided him an unobstructed view of the changing skyline since then.

“I think the New York skyline reflects our confidence that we’re not going to be stifled by the threat of another disaster,” Fried said. “The skyline evokes pride — and turning the page from disaster.”

***

The ever-changing Manhattan skyline remains an ever-present backdrop to the daily lives of North Jersey residents.

We see it all the time. When we’re heading east on Route 3, it pops into view just over the rise near Passaic Avenue in Clifton. When we’re riding east on Route 80 and sweep around the curve near Hackensack, it spreads out to the right. In the evening, it glitters up close, as we climb the Lincoln Tunnel helix. It seems to gallop along with our cars as we race across the mudflats of the Meadowlands on the Turnpike’s western spur. It even provides a tease peek when the top of the Empire State Building appears above the trees as we’re heading south on Route 17 at the Ridgewood-Paramus border.

One of the best spots for the public to experience the entire sweep of the new skyline is in Woodland Park, on a grassy bluff behind the observatory in Rifle Camp Park.

“For me, the growth of the skyline is amazing — I’m fully awed by it,” said Jason Barr, an economics professor at Rutgers University at Newark and the author of “Building the Skyline: The Birth and Growth of Manhattan’s Skyscrapers.” “We humans have created this work of art. It’s active, communal, unplanned art — the art of capitalism.”

Some of the new skyscrapers are glass-sheathed office towers. One World Trade Center, the city’s tallest, has already been joined by 3 World Trade Center, which at 1,079 feet is the fifth-tallest building in Manhattan, and by 4 World Trade Center, which is 978 feet tall.

Another cluster of office towers is going up along the Hudson River in midtown, a development called Hudson Yards above the rail tracks that lead from New Jersey into Pennsylvania Station. Among the towers is 10 Hudson Yards, which straddles the elevated High Line linear park and, at 895 feet, is the 14th-tallest tower in the city. Under construction is 30 Hudson Yards, which will reach nearly 1,300 feet when it’s finished in 2019, blocking views of the Empire State Building from parts of Weehawken. It will have the city’s highest observation deck.

Another type of new skyscraper is also transforming the Manhattan skyline — tall, thin residential towers called super-slims.

Ada Egar is not particularly enamored of the new skyscrapers, saying they lack the character of the Empire State or the Chrysler Building. Yet she relishes the overall view of the skyline from her Carlstadt home.

“Right before the sun goes down, it shines off the buildings and creates haloes,” said Egar, whose house looks out at the skyline. “I could take a picture every evening and they’d all be different. On a clear night the view is spectacular. You think you’re looking at a postcard. When I have company over, I bring them to the kitchen and say, ‘Look out the window.’ Their jaws drop.”

Herb Scherzer lives on the top floor of the Country Club Towers in Clifton. He sits on his balcony to take in the view even in winter.

“It’s a never-ending change of scenery with the weather conditions,” he said. “It’s like the ocean, always changing. I watched One World Trade Center go up. It went up slowly, then they lit it up, and it looks phenomenal. Every time I go out on the balcony, I feel like saying, ‘Oh wow.’ ”

***

The new Manhattan skyline can evoke a kaleidoscope of meaning — the loss of Sept. 11, the determination to continue, defiance in an age of terrorism.

“I think people thought — after the long lull when everyone was stunned from the attack — that they were determined for New York to be New York and continue to grow,” said Russell Shorto, author of “The Island at the Center of the World,” a history of Manhattan’s first 60 years as the Dutch settlement called New Amsterdam.

But Manhattan’s continuing vertical growth is also the result of economics, and reflects the city’s financial strength despite 9/11 and the recession, said Carol Willis, founder, director and curator of the Skyscraper Museum in Battery Park City.

“New York is back on the world stage even with those setbacks,” Willis said. “The economy is a pretty powerful thing. And in New York, one of the most competitive arenas is real estate.”

Construction of the slender new residential towers, for instance, has been spurred by foreign billionaires looking to park their money in a safe investment, Barr said, and New York real estate fits the bill.

One of the super-slims, 432 Park Avenue, near Central Park, is perhaps the most striking addition to the skyline, not for its architectural distinctiveness, but because it is 1,396 feet tall — making it the second-tallest structure in New York and nearly 150 feet taller than the Empire State Building. It was designed by architect Rafael Viñoly, and it is the tallest residential building in the Western hemisphere.

Apartments in the 96-story tower — which feature 12.6-feet ceilings and 10-by-10-foot windows — are selling for as much as $27 million. The top-floor penthouse went for a reported $95 million.

Ada Egar sees the tower daily from her kitchen window in Carlstadt.

“It looks like a pencil. Really ugly,” she said.

John Hill, who has published several books on architecture and writes the New York architecture blog Archidose, is kinder.

“It’s so basic, in a sense,” |he said. “It’s just a concrete grid, but because it’s so slender and simple there’s some weird appeal to it. It’s also ­interesting ­because the architecture and struc-|ture work together. There are cut­outs four or |five times up the tower that allow wind to pass through and reduce the lateral force.”

Viñoly’s tower and several other super-slims along 57th Street are collectively called Billionaires’ Row, and are possible not only because of new construction technology but also because of the quirks of New York’s 1961 zoning law. Developers who don’t use all the height allowance for a site can sell the remaining “air rights” to another developer on the same block. As a result, some developers pile air rights from multiple sites onto a single, narrow parcel.

Michael Sorkin, a professor of architecture at City College of New York and an author of several books on architecture, is not pleased with the results.

“It’s a fancy air rights transfer dance,” he said. “There are inappropriately tall buildings all over Manhattan and some are quite bad.”

By early in 2018, 432 Park will be joined on the skyline by another tall, slender residential tower at 111 W. 57th St. It will incorporate Steinway Hall, which dates to 1925, and will reach about 1,400 feet high.

Another example of the new residential towers is Eight Spruce Street, near City Hall, whose twisting stainless steel exterior is a trademark of architect Frank Gehry.

In Tribeca, there’s 56 Leonard Street, a tower of glass boxes piled up in a seemingly haphazard fashion, designed by the Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron.

“It looks like a Jenga tower,” Hill said.

Like Egar, Sorkin looks at these new buildings with derision. Sorkin can see 56 Leonard Street from his office window.

“The more I look, the more I hate it for being where it is,” he said, alluding to the lower-scale buildings of its Tribeca neighborhood. “I can’t just look at these skyscrapers as a piece of sculpture.”

He also is dismayed at 30 Park Place, a 937-foot residential tower that looms over its centenarian neighbor, the iconic Woolworth Building.

“The Woolworth is now surrounded by buildings taller than it is — it’s disrespectful,” he said.

Others have complained about the long shadows cast across Central Park by the super-slims. New York novelist and journalist Pete Hamill, writing in the December issue of National Geographic, said this about the new Manhattan: “Its architectural face is colder, more remote, less human, seeming to be sneering.”

Viñoly’s 432 Park Avenue “lords over its neighbors, looking for all the world as if it’s giving the finger to my city,” Hamill wrote.

There are equally vocal defenders of the new towers. Nikolai Fedak, in a post on New York Yimby, a blog that celebrates the new Manhattan architecture, dismisses the critics. He called their verbal assaults “faux-outrage by people who think shadows don’t already exist over Central Park.”

“If the skyline is a forest,” Fedak wrote, “these towers are the equivalent of redwoods, signifying increasing maturity, and most importantly, an expansion of opportunity for all the little humans in the forest below.”

The greatest distinction of Manhattan’s skyline — that “magnificent glowing beast across the river” — is the ability to see sweeping historical variety in one continuous view, Sorkin said.

“The city is so rich and dense it can continue to forgive some of this new stuff,” he said.

***

While the new skyscrapers of Manhattan exist largely because of economics, North Jersey residents who see them every day continue to bestow on the new towers symbolic significance as emblems of hope.

Before 9/11, visitors to the waiting room for plastic and reconstructive surgery at Hackensack University Medical Center often looked out the windows at the panorama of Manhattan.

“On 9/11, we were able to see everything from there — it seemed like a surreal movie,” said Lani Garris, a registered nurse and an administrative director at the medical center.

“Afterwards, it was such a blank spot, so sad to look at,” she said. “You’d see the Empire State Building and then glance downtown and see this huge gap, a constant reminder. We suggested that patients instead focus on the planes landing at Teterboro Airport.”

Then One World Trade Center started to rise.

“We watched the cranes for years, and people kept asking, ‘When will it be finished?’ ” Garris said.

“Now, the skyline has totally changed. The focus used to be the two tall sections of the skyline with Empire State in midtown and the Twin Towers in lower Manhattan, but now there are all these tall buildings in between,” Garris said.

The new towers, rising like a silver and glass forest, “symbolize coming back and not being afraid to build,” she said. “In North Jersey, the Manhattan skyline is in your face every day — a constant reminder of what we lost, and how we’ve come back.”

Follow James on Twitter: @JamesMONeill1


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