Sniping at the Supertowers

Gary Barnett of Extell Development Company, Margaret Newman of the Municipal Art Society, and Layla Law-Gisiko of Manhattan Community Board 5 at the board's town hall, "Supertowers Along Central Park" on Feb. 17. (Caroline Anderson/NY City Lens)

Gary Barnett of Extell Development Company, Margaret Newman of the Municipal Art Society, and Layla Law-Gisiko of Manhattan Community Board 5 at the board’s town hall, “Supertowers Along Central Park” on Feb. 17. (Caroline Anderson/NY City Lens)

What do non-billionaire neighbors think of the rise of “Billionaires Row” on West 57th Street in Manhattan? On the whole, not so much, apparently. But one of its developers braved around 400 New Yorkers at a hearing on February 17. The occasion was a town hall organized by the local community board at the New York Public Library. The topic: “Supertowers Along Central Park.”


Complaints about the development around the southern border of Central Park varied, but many of them focused on the shadows projected by the buildings and the draining of resources by foreign investors who don’t plan to make New York home. Though not everyone was completely critical of the buildings, there were hisses as the developer, Gary Barnett, the president of Extell Development Company, spoke.


Barnett stood his ground. When his turn came to speak, he even got some laughs. “My name is Gary I’m-a-glutton-for-punishment Barnett,” he said as he introduced himself. Because the developers have secured the air rights of the buildings adjoining their construction sites—six of them rising along a five-block stretch on West 57th—their construction plans did not have to undergo review by the community or any environmental impact studies. Part of the reason for the hearing was to seek ways to make sure such projects are subject to public input in the future.


Barnett said the meeting came about when the Municipal Art Society, a nonprofit organization, released its report “The Accidental Skyline” in December showing the projected shadows of the new buildings going up. The dark shadows stretch across the lower half of the park, falling on familiar landmarks like the zoo and carousel.


The report shows the shadows of seven buildings, four of which are underway, and three of which are marked “potential.” Most of the buildings are over 1,000 feet tall.

Barnett’s company Extell owns two of them, one of which will be the tallest residential building in the country, according to the report.


Unlike his buildings, Barnett tends to keep a low profile, according to a 2010 profile in New York magazine. He lives in Queens, has 10 children, and refuses to use email.


Wearing a black turtleneck and rimless glasses, he defended his buildings, saying the potential drawbacks outweighed the benefits. “We’re creating over 1,000 permanent jobs in construction, retail—and these are not minimum-wage jobs,” he said. “The buildings will contribute $3 billion in tax dollars over the next 20 years. Does the possibility of a small, minute shadow outweigh the possibility of giving our fellow New Yorkers a chance at a better life?”


The crowd got lively when Warren St. John, a journalist who wrote an October op-ed criticizing the towers’ negative impact on Central Park in The New York Times, stood up and delivered his presentation on two large screens on either side of the dais.


He said he had taken his young daughter to Hecksher Playground in Central Park near 65th Street a couple of years ago. “And it got very chilly, and everyone left. I looked up and saw the sun was blocked by a building I had never seen before.”


“The following spring, I was in the park near 75th Street,” he continued. “All of a sudden, it got cold again and I realized I was in the shadow of the same building.”


Then he showed a new slide, and said, “That’s the shadow of One57 today,” referring to one of Barnett’s buildings. The audience gasped at the shadow looming over the park. Barnett looked straight ahead, arms folded, nodding his head and pressing his lips together. After criticizing the towers as playthings for the wealthy, St. John said, “I saw an article in 2012 that said Extell had over a billion dollars in sales.”


He added, “In the short term, we need a moratorium on buildings’ specific height.” The crowd erupted into applause and cheers.


Taking up his mic, Barnett remained seated on the dais and began his rebuttal:“The first thing is, I think the public discourse could be more decent and not include cheap shots.” The crowd hissed and groaned.


Barnett went on to say that he had the “right” to build an even larger building but decided not to. “We like to think we’re contributing to the art of the city,” he said to more hissing. “Art is in the eye of the beholder.”


After the event, Marsha Herman, 68, smiled and stood by the dais. Herman, a former librarian, is a student at the Art Students League at 215 W. 57th St.  Next door to the League, Extell is building what the Municipal Art Society says will be the tallest building in the country. It includes a cantilever, or extension, that will hang over the Art Students League’s four-story, landmarked building. According to “The Accidental Skyline,” “The cantilever will allow a more open floor plan for Nordstrom and improved views of Central Park from the residential tower.”


“Extell is not excellent,” Herman said, and walked away.


Later, on the steps outside the library, Nancy Wishmeier, another attendee, was less critical, although she expressed concern for the historical buildings overshadowed or demolished by new development.


“I’m fifty-fifty,” she said. “It requires study to see what it brings to the city.”