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NYC’s ‘pencil tower’ trend makes its way to Boston

Sleek, slender tower targeted for Washington Street

At 1,421 feet, 111 West 57th St. would be the skinniest skyscraper in the world.
HAYES DAVIDSON
At 1,421 feet, 111 West 57th St. would be the skinniest skyscraper in the world.

Trust New York to always do it bigger than Boston.

A local developer has proposed Boston’s first so-called pencil tower, a stick of a building shoehorned into a Downtown Crossing site just 38 feet wide.

City officials believe it would be the first slender building of its type in Boston.

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In New York, though, pencil towers are shooting to the sky in bunches, their improbable heights matched only by their sky-high prices.

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The roughly 1,396-foot 432 Park building, rising near Central Park, is the tallest residential building in Manhattan; coming next is the nearby tower going up at 111 West 57th, which at 1,421 feet tall and just 60 feet wide would also be the skinniest skyscraper in the world, according to its developers. Several other proposed towers would have even thinner bases, though they would be shorter than those clustered around the southern end of Central Park.

“They are pushing the limit,” said Ondel Hylton, who works for a New York real estate firm and helped put on an exhibit on pencil towers for the Skyscraper Museum in Manhattan. “These types of buildings have never been built before.”

More than a dozen such towers are underway or in development in New York, and more are in the wings, Hylton said, financed by a burgeoning class of ultra-wealthy buyers.

The tower One57 has been nicknamed the “billionaire building”; indeed, a penthouse there sold for more than $100 million in January.

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The Skyscraper Museum’s founder, Carol Willis, said New York has the unique situation of many wealthy people willing to underwrite the staggering costs of building such reed-thin towers.

“I call it the logic of luxury,” Willis said. “These buildings will not exist anywhere else.”

Still, the buildings face unusual engineering challenges because of their slender profiles. Wind sway can not only leave residents nauseous but undermine the integrity of the structure by cracking joints, walls, and windows.

One57, designed by star architect Christian de Portzamparc, just set a New York City record for a condo, selling for around $100 million.
ODA ARCHITECTURE
One57, designed by star architect Christian de Portzamparc, just set a New York City record for a condo, selling for around $100 million.

“If you think of a sapling tree, the thinner the sapling, the more bends in the wind,” Hylton said. “You don’t want occupants to feel that, especially if they are paying $90 million.”

Alexcio Group
This unusual building at 56 Leonard Street in TriBeCa, designed by Herzog & de Meuron and codeveloped by Alexico Group and Hines, has been dubbed the Jenga Tower because its staggered floors resemble the wood-block game.

Modern engineering advances have allowed architects to keep these buildings erect. Sophisticated software is used to minimize their wind profile, and dampers of heavy concrete help anchor the structures. Builders also use special high-strength concrete for additional stability and stiffness. These expensive modifications add unprofitable space to the structures’ cores, driving up the prices of living areas. To compensate, the architects and developers employ specially designed scissor stairs and thinner walls.

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The pencil tower in Boston would be squeezed onto a small lot between two theaters. Its developer, Rafi Properties, and the architect, Stantec, plan to build it mostly of concrete instead of the usual steel, to reduce the maneuvering room needed to build on the boxed-in site.

However, the Boston tower, compared to those in New York, would be a relative stub: 305 feet high. In Manhattan, the wealthy are willing to pay dearly to live above the city. So to make the skyrocketing prices worth it, many of these new towers offer buyers “the money shot”: a drop-dead view of Central Park.

“The buildings are slender because developers want to put the most square footage up in the sky to get those views that people pay big bucks for,” Hylton said. “If prices keep escalating, you will probably see building heights and slenderness escalate as well, as long as the city policies allow for it.”

The 30-story residential “pencil tower” in Downtown Crossing proposed for the site of the former Felt nightclub at 533 Washington St.
Rafi Properties
The 30-story residential “pencil tower” in Downtown Crossing proposed for the site of the former Felt nightclub at 533 Washington St.

Karishma Mehrotra can be reached at karishma.mehrotra@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @missmishma.