When a New High-Rise Means Less Housing
The third and 75th buildings will be replaced by an 18-story tower with fewer apartments.
Photo: Google Maps
Over the years I’ve learned to mostly suppress my gut reaction when I see renderings of another glass tower on another Brooklyn street corner, or read about a row of old buildings mixed-use demolished for a new generic ‘luxury’. I’m no NIMBY – I know, intellectually, that the city desperately needs housing and there’s no point going lunar in front of a three-unit brick building – but I still have to remind myself that more housing and more density do require more development Even if it’s not affordable, or to my liking, or it’s a lot – if anything – to move the needle on rents in the area where it’s rising, it has to happen It’s generally taken for granted that retail will be characterless, a bit of local charm will fade away and the whole thing will line the pockets of people whose pockets don’t need more lining. Even so, we need this, I tell myself.
So when I seen that a five-story building at Third Avenue and 75th Street was being replaced by an 18-story apartment tower, I suppressed my groans at first. In the spring of 2021, the site sold for $32.4 million to a luxury condo developer, EJS, which recently filed permits with the Department of Buildings for a 214-foot building that would contain 38 apartments, averaging 2,500 square feet each ( condos, presumably). There doesn’t seem to be any retail. The low-rise buildings that the condo tower replaces had a total of 43 units as well as a retail space (the Candle Cafe, Bistro Le Steak and a bodega). Larger buildings with fewer units are not as rare as one might think, although the comparison is rarely so stark: an 18-story tower with fewer apartments than the group of buildings of four and five floors it replaces.
Historically, the Upper East Side has been one of the densest neighborhoods in the city, but building upwards does not necessarily increase population density. Although Manhattan overall added 50,423 units between January 1, 2010 and June 30, 2020, the Upper East Side would have had a net loss of 81 units without a new building. on Roosevelt Island. As such, it ranks last among the borough’s 58 community neighborhoods, according to a report from the town planning department“In some affluent areas closest to employment centers – particularly the Upper East Side, Upper West Side, and Greenwich Village/Soho/Noho – the unit losses significantly outweigh the additions.” Which is remarkable, given that the Upper East Side has seen something a building boom during the last years. “You can’t make the case that it’s growing for density and affordability,” Matthew Murphy, executive director of NYU’s Furman Center, told me. “It’s just pure wealth, frankly.”
The project on 3rd and 75th Street is meant to incorporate affordable apartments, according to Patch; EJS did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but it seems unlikely that the building will be leased (not at 2,500 square feet each, at least) or that inclusive housing will be in the building, if at all. . The apartments it will replace weren’t low-income, but they were modest, the sort of place a young professional moving out of a roommate situation might move in: pleasant enough, no-frills spaces, mostly bedrooms, that rented for about $2 $500 per month. They were walk-up apartments with small bedrooms and kitchens, some with perks an average New Yorker would consider semi-luxurious: washer-dryers, gas fireplaces, back patios.
Redevelopment tends towards luxury for the simple reason that once you build high, the difference in construction price between a luxury apartment and a simple one is modest – but the sale price difference is not. In the past, as a building aged or a neighborhood became less fashionable, it was usually taken over by less fortunate residents. The replacement was generally at least as dense as what came before it: the mansions along Fifth Avenue giving way to the opulent high-rise co-ops that stand there today. This, combined with the mid-century urban shift from single-family homes to efficient high-rise buildings, meant that virtually every replacement added a lot of units. The tall 1950s and 1960s white-brick and brown-brick towers on Second and Third Avenue, for example, are absolute hives of studios and one-bedroom apartments. If you had money and wanted family housing at the time, you probably moved to the suburbs.
People want more space in the city now, and luxury buyers in particular. east manhattan much fewer people than it was in 1900, when not only were tenements densely populated, but even the most luxurious houses and apartments housed larger, often extended families that included a grandparent or virgin aunt, as well as resident servants. Since 1970, the city as a whole has become denser as the population has grown, going from an average of 2.7 people in each dwelling in 1970 to 2.4 in 2010, according to a 2015 report of the Furman Center. The new apartments are much larger than they were; the average apartment size across the city has increased every year since 2000. While it’s not uncommon to find older apartment buildings consisting of only studios or one bedroom, zoning doesn’t allow it today – it’s too dense. Even if a developer wanted to build one (doubtful; many people buy after having kids), they’d have to add larger units into the mix. You don’t see full towers of these little apartments going up anymore – unless you count the micro units at Carmel Placea pilot of extravagantly designed units who was, apparently, unique.
In this boom, the mathematics of development favors more spacious apartments than ever before. Another recent development of EJS at 150 East 78th Street has 25 units spread over 16 floors; they are all half-floor and full-floor apartments. The five active listings range from a $6 million 2,200 square foot three bedroom to a 3,800 square foot five bedroom listed at $16.95 million. (Of these, all but the largest are under contract.) This building was designed by Robert AM Stern, known for 15 Central Park West – a building that replaced several vacant lots and the 365-room Mayflower Hotelwhich housed some rent-controlled tenants, with a tower of 200 sumptuous apartments. There is also, of course, the less dramatic but far more widespread conversion of multi-family townhouses to single-family, co-op and condominiums and, more rarely, the combination of several townhouses in the megamansions. It would be one thing if the extremely wealthy just added their living spaces to the empty sky, so to speak, but increasingly they are gobbling up middle-class(-ish) spaces as they do.
This type of upscale housing consolidation is also happening in other neighborhoods. Across the park at 215 West 84th Street, developer Naftali is trying to demolish a 128-unit mark-to-market apartment complex to build a new residential tower, a plan that has been delayed by a recalcitrant tenant. Her 700-square-foot one-bedroom apartment rents for $3,350 a month. The New York Time Noted that although the developer had yet to file a building permit for West 84th, the site could accommodate a building approximately 210 feet tall. On Madison and 86th Street, Naftali is building another 210 foot towerdesigned by Stern (the architect of choice for the wealthy if you want limestone instead of a shard of glass), with units that price range from $9.65 million to $42 million. It contains 12 apartments.