Is 432 Park Avenue adding much to New York City’s density? That may seem like a trivial question, given that CIM Group and Macklowe Properties’ condominium project is a 1,396-foot-tall tower built on a relatively small lot. But Moses Gates, director of community planning and design at urban studies think tank Regional Plan Association, argues that density isn’t just about height – it’s about adding smaller units. And in this regard, the tallest building in the Western hemisphere falls short.
“There has to be effective density, not just physical density,” Gates said on a panel discussion at the RPA’s annual summit Friday at the Waldorf Astoria hotel. 432 Park Avenue’s apartments, 126 in all, average 4,000 square feet, according to Gates, while apartments in Forest City Ratner’s 870-foot-tall rental tower at 8 Spruce Street, also known as the New York by Gehry building, average 750 square feet. In this case the shorter tower is adding more in density.
“What if we changed tax and building codes to discourage extra large units?” he asked.
Gates shared the stage with several urban policy experts including the New York City planning commission’s chair Carl Weisbrod,to discuss the RPA’s plan to improve affordability in New York. Apart from encouraging smaller units, the plan also includes familiar calls to upzone low-rise neighborhoods, discourage pieds-à-terre and legalize small apartments in the basements of single-family homes. It also called for changes to the (now defunct) 421a program, such as expanding affordability requirements. Finally, Gates attacked the height cap on residential construction, which limits buildings to a height of 12 times the lot’s floor area in Manhattan and forces high-rise developers to buy air rights.
Weisbrod agreed on the height issue, arguing that the cap was obsolete “especially since we don’t have a cap on commercial development.” But he also pointed out that the cap was set by state lawmakers, an could not be repealed by the city alone.
On the broader issue of affordability, Weisbrod defended the de Blasio administration’s affordable housing plan, which he called the boldest in the country, and put blame for its shortcomings on the federal government.
New York’s affordability crisis, he argued, is really a regional problem that can’t be solved by the city alone and is caused by “the basic absence of the federal government in this area.”
“Unless the federal government steps up,” he said, “whether it’s in this area or infrastructure spending or other domestic spending, this problem will continue to vex all of us.”