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Where Does It End?

135 questions for those who shape and those who (sometimes) occupy New York City’s extreme upper skyline

Why do these buildings exist? Who, exactly, demands them? Is it the residents—a mix of oligarchs, finance titans, modern-day robber barons, obscene inheritors, post-socialist privatizers, mafiosos, money launderers, and avatars for anonymous bank accounts—who want to see more glass rectangles stretch higher toward the stars? Is it the developers and their investors, eyeing available swatches of land and sky to assemble into luxury skyscrapers, with each subdivision thereof selling in the millions? Is it the city, state, and federal politicians, planners, and policymakers who incentivize these stationary investment vehicles for mobile capital, hoping to grab some benefit—tax revenue, press buzz, the coveted “favorable investment climate”? Is it the architects and designers seeking to put their stamp on the city, preferably at slightly higher altitudes than their competitors, and with slightly more flair (or coolness, if that’s their calling card)? Is it the workers who build and service the buildings—and the union leaders who represent some of them—who understand the city’s political economy better than economists, and have pinned their futures to this asset class?

How many individuals actually desire this mode of development? How might that number compare to the majority of people who demand—who desperately need—an entirely different built environment, meant to house them comfortably at costs commensurate with normal (i.e., pretty low) incomes? Does the demand for these ultra-luxury skyscrapers come primarily from people as such, or does it come more from capital in the aggregate? In other words, is it just that influential individuals desire absurdly unaffordable housing, or is it that the capitalist economy is currently configured in such a way as to require more of this mode of development? It’s both, right?

If all the money currently invested in real estate around the world—roughly $217 trillion, 75 percent of which is in housing—were piled sky high in $1 denominations, how tall would it reach? How many skyscrapers, stacked up end to end, would it match? At what point would it burst into flames from reaching too close to the sun? What would be its weight in gold, compared to its weight in glass, steel, concrete, and brick?

What futures are foreclosed when a city goes all in on ultra-luxury development?

And why, exactly, is so much global capital pooled into urban real estate? People need housing, sure, but with affordability down and homelessness up, is that what this mode of investment really accomplishes? Is it the outcome of decades of financial deregulation, low interest rates, and quantitative easing all creating opportunities for mobile capital to be sunk into high-return real estate? Is it part of various states’ spatial fixes for both attracting and retaining surplus capital? Is it the result of predatory private equity firms scouring the globe for so-called “undervalued assets” and determining that our cities are worthy investment targets? Is it the economic polarization that continues to push billions into poverty while elevating a relatively tiny few to the status of the super-rich, who need to park (or hide) their profits somewhere? Is it just the predictable outcome of a global capitalist system in which capital gains are growing far faster than profits in traditional productive sectors?

Ultimately, who pays for these buildings? Besides the buyers, who are the investors? Just how much debt did the developers and owners take on? Who issued it? Imagine for a moment that all the outstanding debt on these ultra-luxury towers were called, all at once; could even one of the developers repay it? How many times has the debt on these developments been repackaged and resold? To whom? How long and how far does their string (or chain, or tangle, or web, or network, or Mutually Assured Destruction doomsday device, or whatever you want to picture it as) of mortgage-backed securities and collateralized debt obligations stretch? Are my meager bank deposits invested in these towers? Are yours? What about my city or state’s public pension funds?

How much public financing went into these luxury towers’ construction? How large a tax break were the developers offered, “as of right”? Were there any special levies or financing schemes specifically designed for any of these projects? How can New York justify the approximately $2.5 billion in annual subsidies to developers known as “421-a” at a time when social spending is being slashed and public housing in this city needs roughly $30 billion in repair funds? How much tax revenue can these buildings be expected to generate if we keep incentivizing their construction through tax breaks?

How many of these buildings relied on changes to the rules about what can be built where and at what size—namely the city’s zoning code—in order to be built where they are? Was the rezoning part of a neighborhood plan, or was it just an ad hoc, one-parcel variance? How much did the developer spend on lobbyists to ensure that a land-use change, tax break, or other public incentive was secured? Was there any opposition? What uses did the various opponents imagine for the space these buildings currently occupy? What would the city look like if fortunes had been reversed, and the community plans had been initiated instead of the developer’s?

What futures are foreclosed when a city goes all in on ultra-luxury development? What more widely and urgently needed uses are pushed aside, to another location or to another time, when these kinds of projects are prioritized? Are the YIMBYs—the “Yes in My Backyard” activists who promote a market-oriented supply-side solution to urban gentrification—right that if we don’t build these insanely high-priced dwellings in ever-growing quantities, the super-rich will simply outbid the rest of us for the existing housing stock? If so, how can we make that untrue? What third option exists beyond two iterations of the status quo—the ongoing multiplication of vertical mansions amid growing homelessness, or a lifeless locked-in-amber preservation of the city as it exists in a given time and place?

What else could be done with buildings of this size? If the super-prime market sags (or does it explode?), could we convert these buildings to any other use? As they age, can they “filter” through the market, like other housing typologies sometimes do? How many people of more modest means could be housed in them if the apartments they contain were reconfigured for average New Yorkers? Moreover, since there are more vacant apartments than homeless people in this city, and a fair number of those vacancies are in the tallest towers, could their empty units become homes for those who need them most? Could they become other kinds of much-needed infrastructure—hospitals, schools, greenhouses, cultural spaces, or the like? Or are they so specifically designed, so extremely expensive and technically complex to maintain, that they could never be anything but what they are? And if that’s the case, when their market bottoms out, what do we do? Do we carefully dismantle them in order to make their footprints available for more socially productive uses? Or must they be dynamited in an ostentatious demonstration, like a class-reversed return to the familiar demolitions of public housing that occurred again and again and again and again in cities across the country, from Atlanta to New Orleans to Baltimore to Chicago? Who would be given the honor of pushing the detonator?

OK, but really: If the ultra-luxury market dies down, and it’s too dangerous to demolish them, and we can’t repurpose them or lower their rents while maintaining the infrastructure—what happens then? Do they rust? Rot? “Return to nature?” How long before their pipes would burst?

If these buildings were to suddenly disappear, who would miss them? How many of those people are there?

Photo: Andi Schmied

Let me ask you a question Mike Davis posed to his students at the Southern California Institute of Architecture: If you had a B-52 bomber and unlimited arms, how would you create “the optimal improvement of the built environment through the destruction of the ugliest and most antisocial buildings?” Ultimately Davis argued that the real target for our metaphorical B-52s must be “the commodity form of land itself,” but are you aware that if you offered this hypothetical to many New Yorkers, they would choose all the buildings like yours? Why do you think that is? How does that make you feel? And by the way, I’m really curious: What would you blow up if the bombers were yours to deploy? What targets are in your sights?

Could you tell me how many people are still trying to buy one of these apartments? It seems like the prices at the very top of the housing market have begun to dip, and developers are withholding condos until sales conditions improve, so a lot of New Yorkers are now asking: Is the Manhattan real estate bubble primed to burst? And on top of those pre-existing conditions, will New York City’s spring 2020 status as the global epicenter of the Covid-19 pandemic scare away future potential purchasers or investors? Will all future buyers have to imagine being quarantined in these apartments? Will that eventuality—and the comfort of these homes for such involuntary extended stays—become part of the standard brokers’ pitch?

Under normal conditions, how much time do the owners spend inside these homes? How many are just occupied half the year? Just a few weekends? Once or twice for a vacation or a business trip? How many go unoccupied for an entire year? How many go unoccupied from the time of purchase to the time of sale, their use value collapsed entirely into their exchange value?

How much energy, labor, and investment goes into these buildings’ daily maintenance? How many workers are required to keep them operating at the standards their owners demand? What would happen if all those workers went on strike? Could any of the residents do this work themselves? And if so, would they?

Why are the streets so quiet—so deadly quiet—on many of the blocks where this kind of building arose? Do the residents of these apartments enjoy walking any streets of New York? If so, which ones? Is there the slightest chance that their favorite block to stroll down is the one they hover above?

What’s rising faster: Manhattan’s ultra-luxury skyline or the seas along its shorelines?

What’s with the ubiquitous glass facades? Do you ever get bored with them? I get that buyers like the views, designers like the clean angles, and glass technologies have improved markedly, but have you ever had the experience of sitting in a glass tower, facing another glass tower, with the sun’s glare off that second building beaming straight into your eyes? What are these mirrored facades meant to reflect? Is it the old city of brick and terra-cotta, distorted and distended? Or is it the new city of glass and steel, one building reflecting itself off the skin of the other, over and over ad infinitum? What can you really see from way up there, anyway? What can you hear? What can you smell? Can you see the street directly below, or do the angles of your building disallow that? Can you see any of the sixty-one thousand homeless New Yorkers the city officially counts, or any of the roughly four thousand people who sleep rough on the city’s streets nightly? Can you see the public housing complexes whose deferred maintenance and disinvestment has created dangerous conditions for many of its quarter-of-a-million inhabitants? If there were a protest at the base of your building, would you know it? And if they were protesting you, would you rather know or remain ignorant?

Can you see another similar skyscraper for the impossibly rich rising up nearby? Does it threaten your tower’s very valuable vista? Can you see any of the semi-public viewing spaces where tourists and curious New Yorkers can pay way too much money for a momentary glimpse at the city like the one you have at your disposal whenever you choose to spend time in this apartment? Do you ever wave at them, and think they can see you? If so, what do you think they’re thinking?

What’s rising faster: Manhattan’s ultra-luxury skyline or the seas along its shorelines? What is the carbon footprint for these buildings—symbols of energy-saving density, sure, but also home to the most gluttonous individual energy consumers on the planet? Were you here during Hurricane Sandy? What did the storm surge look like from way up there, if your building was around then? Did you feel safe, being so elevated from the rising water? Or did thoughts of doom—wobbly windows, power outages, downed elevators, unstable ground, angry New Yorkers—keep you up at night? Are you ready for the next storm?

How long are you planning for? A thousand-year reign? Seven generations? A thirty-year mortgage? A few business cycles? A five-year plan? Or just until the next crash? If you happen to know when that might be, could you give us a heads up?

When you close your eyes and imagine the future of this city’s upper skyline—five, ten, fifty, one hundred years from now—what do you see? Does it remain more or less as it is, or are there many more buildings like these? Do they crowd each other out, eliminating their utility as elite objects and spaces from which to take in vast distances? If so, must there be a new iteration of even taller towers to accomplish that vertiginous achievement? Where does this take us? Where does it end?

This essay originally appeared in Andi Schmied’s book Private Views: A High-Rise Panorama of Manhattan, published by Viper Gallery. Reprinted here with permission.