Since then, as approaches to planning have become more sophisticated, the challenge for developers has only become more complex. “Government approvals are a huge piece of what we do,” says David Penick, managing director of Hines, developer with Goldman Sachs and Pontiac Land Group of the super-tall 53W53 tower above New York’s Museum of Modern Art. “To create a project like this, we spend a tremendous amount of time getting everything in place so we can proceed with construction.”

Penick welcomes the complexity that the city’s detailed planning guidelines bring. “An exciting thing about developing in New York is that there is a great set of rules. It’s not a matter of going to City Hall and saying ‘Gee, I wish I could do this’. Every neighbourhood is precisely zoned, and for each plot, it says how big the building can be and what its use can be. It’s a fantastic challenge, like racing a 12m yacht. You’re always trying to understand the rules and what the possibilities are, and then someone comes up with a clever new idea that everyone learns from.”

It’s a fantastic challenge, like racing a 12 m yacht. You’re always trying to understand the rules and what the possibilities are.
David Penick, HINES

One of the most striking features of 53W53 is its high height-to-width ratio – a feature of many new towers in Midtown. As developers seek to achieve the greatest possible value from very narrow, yet very expensive plots, advances in structural engineering are enabling increasingly slender forms. But 53W53 also lies in three different zoning districts, each with its own permitted densities and shapes. Architect Jean Nouvel’s design is an elegant solution to a complex geometrical problem, with different parts of the building tapering at different angles as it rises from 53rd and 54th Streets.

In New York, getting a project off the ground is not just about finding the right site – the vertical space above it is just as sought-after. To make 53W53 possible, Hines also had to negotiate the transfer of air rights from neighbouring buildings that had not consumed their full entitlement, says Penick. “Then there are other air rights transfers within the project to allow for the intended uses to occur at their correct locations within the building. It’s a very demanding process.”

The plans also had to be signed off by a number of parties including the Museum of Modern Art, which will occupy the lower floors, the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the NYC Transit Authority because of the nearby subway tunnels. The project will be occupied in 2018, 11 years after Hines originally purchased the land.

Watch a video about engineering New York's super slender towers

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