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June 21, 2007

Manhattan Middle Finger: Density & Future Cities

Posted in: Activism,NYC

More like dual middle fingers, actually. You see, a little over a year ago something new appeared through my window. A slowly extending slender metal finger of a building that shot out from the buildings around it like the bird. And another right across the street. They were too tall (more than double the height of surrounding buildings), the design was awful, and they drove a historic movie theater out of business. Double barrel f*ck yous to the Upper West Side called Ariel.

Lightning hit the west tower one damp morning while it was still under construction. Neighbors gathered and gawked — some even clapped. And the applause grew louder when the building started to smoke. The construction workers seemed genuinely shocked by both the lightning and our response. But, come on, lightning? That sure sounds like judgment from above. And don’t forget the building they built on top of fell into the street. You sure there isn’t an ancient Indian burial ground around there somewhere?

Cursed or not, the towers seem here to stay. What’s interesting is what this stir has to say about the future of cities, and the limits of human density. Density finds us more social, healthy, and (perhaps less obviously) ecologically sound. But, if the future points to ever increasing density, where does it stop? Sustainability expert Richard Fuller said as much in a recent BBC editorial:

So, it’s time to rationally debate these issues, and this is an issue that affects at least the nine out of 10 of us that live in cities. It is vitally important that we go into this new, high density era with our eyes open to the potential consequences.

Yes it has clear benefits as we build assertive cities for the 21st century, but by also making them compact cities, we must recognise the risk of isolating ourselves and our children still further from an experience of nature, as well as causing biodiversity around the places where we live to decline precipitously.

It’s a matter of finding a balance, then — sidestepping Ballard’s High Rise nightmare. And it seems that Upper West Siders found that balance (perhaps without realizing it) when they forced the city to rezone and end that skyscraper noise.

But, while the neighbors win a clear victory for their mental environment by keeping future buildings more in character with the neighborhood, it seems Ariel’s builders have won a victory for their cause, too. That’s because they can now guarantee perpetually unobstructed views in all four directions for their multi-million dollar apartments. Can you say price bump? And you have to wonder if they didn’t plan it this way from the beginning. Ugly, ain’t it?

For more on the whole Ariel mess, see the High Anxiety in the Times. It got so many heated responses, they posted a follow-up. And check the panorama to see just how much those towers stand out.

images via the Ariel discussion at Wired New York

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