New Yorkers love complaining about their blocked views

New York City has many fine museums — it isn’t one. Yet. 

But New York is the home of the nation’s second-dumbest urban political ecosystem (in this, if in nothing else, San Francisco excels all others), and so there is an effort afoot to impose new burdensome regulation upon, of all things, the city’s skyline.

The Municipal Art Society of New York has been pressing for more stringent regulation for a decade, while academics such as Jorge Otero-Pailos of Columbia’s historic preservation program have joined the chorus. 

And, of course, there are eternally disgruntled New Yorkers themselves. A snarky New York Times essay recently reinvigorated the debate.

The same sort of people who 100 years ago were complaining about the Empire State Building are now complaining that somebody is ruining their view of the Empire State Building.

Being largely busybodies of a progressive bent, they are particularly irritated by new residential highrises, the sort of building Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times sneers at as “yet another anorexic supertall for squillionaires.” 

New York’s iconic skyline reflects the need to build vertically in a city where land costs are amongst the highest in the world.
Getty Images

More supertalls are precisely what New York actually needs. (More squillionaires, too—New York is, after all, a city in which 1 percent of taxpayers cough up half of the tax revenue.) 

An island city that cannot build out has nowhere to go but up, but New York mostly refuses to do so: New York has about 1.2 million more residents than Hong Kong but has barely half as many buildings 450 feet tall or taller.

When it comes to 600-foot buildings, New York lags behind Dubai, which has half of New York’s population.

The Frank Gehry-designed 8 Spruce apartment tower was derided when it debuted a decade back; today it lures tourists and architecture lovers.
Anne Wermiel/NY Post

Dubai may not be your cup of tea, but at least you can build an apartment building there.

If you want more affordable housing, then you have to allow housing to be built.

The taller a building is, the more housing it can accommodate on a particular footprint. 

New York has fewer super-tall towers than Dubai — which has half of the population.

New Yorkers have resisted change for a long time: When plans for the Empire State Building were revealed, locals insisted that Fifth Avenue simply wouldn’t be Fifth Avenue without the Waldorf-Astoria upon which it was constructed.

Critics hated the Chrysler Building—like the new residential towers, it was derided in many quarters as a garnish, a rich man’s folly.

My former Manhattan home, Frank Gehry’s 8 Spruce Street (for a while the tallest residential building in the Western Hemisphere) was derided by Citysignal as one of “five NYC buildings that have ruined the skyline,” but it is one of the most Gotham-y of Gotham buildings, and people come from all over the world to see it. 

This isn’t only a New York problem. Parisians, who are the New Yorkers of Europe, hated the Eiffel Tower, partly for the same class-war reasons afoot in New York (it was denounced as the product of “mercantile whims”), and partly out of old-fashioned Parisian conservatism.

The writer Guy de Maupassant ate his lunch in the Eiffel Tower café every day—because it was the only place in Paris that didn’t have a view of the tower, which he despised.

Paris maintains an effective ban on skyscrapers and has for 50 years.

Then there’s Vancouver, a pioneer in regulating urban “viewsheds” in the 1980s, which by 2021 had made itself the least-affordable big city in North America.

New York regulators should take a page from Fran Leibowitz and “pretend it’s a city.”

Cities grow and change.

Cities also attract the young and the ambitious who are not starting at the top—and those people have to live somewhere.

Over a century ago, snooty Parisians also complained that the Eiffel Tower was a skyline eye-sore — today it’s the city’s preeminent landmark.

New York’s problem isn’t that there are too many expensive apartments, but that the same kind of NIMBYism that opposes tall residential buildings also opposes the kind of dense, tall development that would make housing more affordable for non-billionaires. 

There are lots of ways for a city to approach that problem: Some cities can just grow like Houston does, and some choose to subsidize like they do in Singapore, where 80 percent of residents live in apartments built under the microstate’s social housing program.

There are options, even for waterbound and hidebound New York.

Stifling tall-tower development may reduce the number of luxury apartments in New York, but it also impacts the development of affordable housing, which the city has never needed more.
UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

What you can’t do is install yourself in a comfortable Upper West Side apartment or TriBeCa loft and then oppose building anything anywhere for anyone else. 

Of course, if you really love the New York skyline so much that you want it set in stone, then maybe do New York a favor and relocate to Weehawken, where you can get a museum-quality view of the city without micromanaging the poor people who have to try to actually live there. 

Kevin D. Williamson is a national correspondent for The Dispatch and a writer in residence at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.