Bill aims to curb supertall shadows in NYC parks

By Amy Plitt

A new bill introduced in the City Council this week calls for establishing a task force to review any properties that have the potential to cast shadows across city parks.

City Council member Mark Levine, whose district includes neighborhoods in northern Manhattan, first introduced the idea back in 2015, when many of the supertalls that have come to dominate the southern end of Central Park were little more than holes in the ground. But now, with four of those cloud-piercing buildings nearing completion (and one—220 Central Park South—that just misses supertall status by about 30 feet), the council member felt it was the right time to make protecting parks from shadows a priority.

“[In 2015] these buildings weren’t up,” Levine tells Curbed. “Now, everyone can look up in the sky and see exactly the impact on Central Park that we had feared. … The threat is no longer hypothetical.”

The towers along Central Park South do cast long shadows that reach well into the park, although according to a New York Times study from 2016, their relative skinniness means that the darkness will “pass through the park at an incredibly fast pace, like a minute hand on a clock.” But while Central Park is what initially spurred Levine to act, he sees this as a preventative measure.

“It’s really aimed at forcing a conversation about solutions, and at ensuring the city monitors this issue in a way they haven’t before,” Levine says. “There’s just no accounting for parks and sunlight in any aspect of our zoning or construction approval process.” (Indeed, searching the zoning code text brings up scant references to sunlight or shadows, and only in reference to pedestrian plazas.)

Levine’s bill calls for establishing a task force, comprising officials across various city agencies (including the Department of Buildings and HPD), that would “study the effect of shadows cast on parks under the jurisdiction 5 of the department by new or proposed building construction,” per the legislation language. There are no specifics included on how tall or big a development would need to be to qualify; instead, the bill calls for the task force to study projects that have the potential to cast shadows, and issue recommendations to the mayor (which could include proposed changes to developments).

The Municipal Art Society, which has followed what it calls the “accidental skyline” issue for several years, issued a statement to Curbed in support of the legislation. “Protecting light and air is a matter of public health and has been a planning priority since the earliest days of the skyscraper—New York’s original 1916 Zoning Resolution was largely predicated on addressing precisely this concern,” Elizabeth Goldstein, MAS’s president, said. “As New York becomes denser than ever, developing a formal understanding of the impact of shadows on our public spaces is an obvious and necessary next step. We urge Council Members to pass this bill.”

In 2015, the Real Estate Board of New York called the shadow fears “overblown,” noting that the Central Park Conservancy had not raised concerns about the proliferation of skyscrapers. At the time, the city declined to get involved in curtailing as-of-right development (we’ve reached out to City Hall regarding Levine’s current proposal, and will update with a response).

“I’m not anti-development,” Levine says. “I think the city needs to continue to build and grow. But development should take into account things like preservation of sunlight in our parks.”

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