Residents of 432 Park Avenue Find Posh New York Towers Can Be Too Tall and Too Thin

Owners are now suing the developer for $250 million. Why are we not surprised?

432 Park Avenue from the top of Rockefeller Center
432 Park Avenue from the top of Rockefeller Center.

Gary Hershorn/ Getty Images

432 Park Avenue in New York City has been on Treehugger probably more times than any other building. Developer Harry Macklowe marketed it by noting: “This is the building of the 21st century, the way the Empire State Building was the building of the 20th century.” I have called the 96-floor skyscraper "the poster child for much that is wrong about architecture, real estate development, and wretched excess."

I have used it to demonstrate that it's time to dump the tired argument that density and height are green and sustainable because there is so much material per occupant, and because operating and embodied carbon increases with building height. I have also called for an upfront carbon emissions tax because of the amount of material and technology that goes into these slender and tall towers: "Structurally, these buildings are horrendously inefficient. Keeping them stiff enough so that there are not whitecaps in the toilets is hard." 

That's why there is a giant tuned mass damper up in the attic to push back against the movement. Everything has to be designed to expand and contract and flex and bend. And as noted in "Why Pencil Towers are Problematic," the very rich buyers of the units in these buildings do not flex and bend—they sue. "The problems are compounded by the type of buyers, who are picky-picky and can afford good lawyers."

432 Park Avenue

Lloyd Alter

Those good lawyers dropped a $250 million lawsuit on the developer of the project on Sept. 23 in the Supreme Court of the State of New York, (PDF here) and it makes fascinating reading for the Eat the Rich crowd, but also for anyone concerned with carbon and the future of building, about intelligent use of resources. As architect James Timberlake told Treehugger,

"Arguably dense given the ratio of building on a small lot, the resources needed per person to build such a tower is excessive and wasteful. The problems associated with such towers to structure and serve them also are disproportionately out of whack to the numbers of persons inhabiting the tower."

And the problems are legion. According to the lawsuit: "This case presents one of the worst examples of sponsor malfeasance in the development of a luxury condominium in the history of New York City. What was promised as one of the finest condominiums in the City was instead delivered riddled with over 1500 identified construction and design defects to the common elements of the Building alone (leaving aside the numerous defects within individual units)."

The flexing and bending cause creaking and other noises: "Due to the Sponsor’s failure to properly design and build the Building to account for its remarkable height, the units experience horrible and obtrusive noise and vibrations."

Even one of the developers of the building admitted that the sound and vibration issues were "intolerable," noting: "These defects are so severe that some residents have been completely displaced from their units for periods in excess of nineteen months while the Sponsor half-heartedly attempted to fix the problems."

The Sponsor probably wasn't half-hearted in his efforts; they are likely unfixable. The 1,396-foot-tall building is designed to flex, it is inevitable when it is so tall and so thin.

"Sponsor also failed to account for the Building’s height and sway with respect to the elevator design. The elevators were programmed to slow down when high winds impact the Building. The elevators have also repeatedly shut down entirely, trapping residents and Unit Owner family members. On multiple occasions residents and family members have been trapped in elevators that have shut down for hours while awaiting rescue and Building residents have been left with non-functioning elevators, thereby denying them access to their residences. "

When buildings flex and bend, joints open and close. Gaskets on pipes bend. it's much like watching a submarine movie where everyone is running around tightening joints and closing valves.

"Due to significant corners cut during construction and poor Sponsor oversight of contractors and professionals, the Building has also experienced multiple incidents of severe flooding and widespread water damage. Persistent water infiltration issues in the Building’s sublevels have been treated with a band-aid approach by the Sponsor. "

While the building can flex and bend, drywall can't. "Highly visible cracks in the drywall of many ceilings, highly visible cracks above doorways, highly visible cracks where walls meet ceilings, air and water leaks at windows, baseboard pulling and misaligned joints, malfunctioning sliding doors, grout joint openings and cracking at walls or floors in ceramic and/or stone tiling, excessive fog and window condensation, gaps and misalignment between wall and ceiling light fixtures, and repeated circuit breaker tripping."

This is not all a big case of Treehugger schadenfreude. In comments to my suggestion of an upfront carbon tax, readers called me a communist. Others wrote that "this silly article is pure envy, nothing more." It is not envy and it is not schadenfreude: I noted previously that "I am talking carbon emissions, not money, because everyone on earth has to live with the consequences of the megatonnes of carbon emitted building and operating this thing."

One problem with being tall, thin, and rich is that everybody notices you, which is why everybody is talking about this building. But from the 1,200 tons of steel in the mass damper at the top of the building to the leaky basement, this building has too much of everything. and as the lawsuit shows, it doesn't even work.

In my post "What Happens When You Plan or Design With Upfront Carbon Emissions in Mind?" I tried to make the case that you don't build things that you don't need, You would keep things simple and use less concrete and steel. Buildings like this are complicated, use lots of concrete and steel per square foot of area, and nobody needs them. 432 Park Avenue is indeed a poster child for what we just shouldn't do anymore.