The billionaire residents of 432 Park Avenue – the world’s tallest residential tower, when it was built in 2015 – must rue the day they bought into the pinnacle of Manhattan’s super-skinny, sky-high living.
Living the dream has turned somewhat hellish for the skyscraper’s super-rich home-owners (who briefly included Jennifer Lopez and Alex Rodriguez, before they split up and sold up). Now, residents are suing the building’s developers, CIM Group and Macklowe Properties, for $125m in damages, citing 1,500 construction and design defects that have seen their repair bills and blood pressure shoot through the roof.
Regular floods, leaks and lift breakdowns that leave residents trapped for hours are among the litany of complaints. The building sways in high winds, and there’s a constant clanking and creaking like a ship’s galley. When rubbish plummets down the chutes of this pencil-thin, 1400 ft-tall tower, it’s like a bomb has gone off, according to one resident. And when a contractor accidentally drilled into the wiring while trying to fix a leak, the ensuing breakdown of the air con system took $1.5m to repair.
Service charges in the building have rocketed from $1,200 five years ago to $15,000 a year – this includes subsidising the in-house restaurant with a Michelin-starred chef – and residents’ insurance premiums have shot up by a reported 300%.
An engineering consultant hired by the board of unit owners describes 432 Park Avenue’s problems as “life safety issues”. But it’s not the only skyscraper on Manhattan’s “Billionaires’ Row'' to pose potential safety risks. A recent investigation by The New York Times shows that only three of New York’s 25 tallest buildings – and none of them are on Billionaire’s Row – have passed the city’s safety requirements. The rest are still considered active construction sites until those requirements are signed off, even years after residents have moved in.
As developers the world over seek to create ever-higher trophy towers in high-rise cities, there are plenty more examples of residential skyscrapers where style is triumphing over substance and safety. As Roberta Brandes Gratz, a board member of the Center for the Living City, an urban development watchdog, commented in the New York Times: “There are technical differences in these supertalls that go beyond just a matter of additional feet. The system was already too permissive, but the challenges today, on an engineering and construction basis, are even more grave.”
In Honolulu, condo owners at Waiea, a luxury 36-storey beachfront tower where units cost up to $36m, have received a $116.5m payout to cover the cost of repairs after they sued the building contractor, Nordic PCL Construction, for more than 100 defects. Problems included loud noises emanating from the walls and cracks in the swimming pool.
As attorney Kenneth Kasdan wrote in the homeowners’ complaint: “Instead of being one of the most sophisticated, luxurious buildings in Honolulu, Waiea is riddled with dozens of construction defects, several of which have marred its reputation and market value.”
And then there’s the leaning tower of San Francisco – not a tourist attraction, but the fate of the 58-storey Millennium Tower, which was built on sand rather than bedrock and sunk by 18 inches.
Sports stars and business tycoons snapped up the apartments in this downtown skyscraper when they went on sale in 2009. By 2016, residents were complaining of creaking and popping sounds. One owner of a corner unit discovered a huge crack in their window designed to withstand hurricanes. It was then that the developers admitted that the tower was tilting and sinking. Now a $100m repair job is underway, to pile drive deep down and underpin the tower – but that is currently on hold as the tower continues to sink and everyone is frantically thinking up a Plan B.
Talking of skyscrapers built on sand, nowhere does high-rise quite like Dubai. But it isn’t sinking that has proved a problem there; it’s towers bursting into flames. The unfortunately-named Torch Tower, one of the world’s tallest residential towers, did just that in 2015, with scorched metal and glass raining down to the ground. It happened again on New Year’s Eve that year at the 63-storey The Address hotel in Dubai Marina, to the confusion of many awaiting a fireworks display the same night.
As Dubai’s civil defence chief Ali Hassan Almutawa explained at the time, “Dubai is leading the world in high-rises, and sometimes we have challenges or difficulties reaching those buildings”. He added that “Sometimes we also find it difficult to communicate with people in these high-rises, especially when people are panicking from windows or balconies.” The biggest issue is the use of non-fire-rated aluminium exterior cladding, which covers two thirds of Dubai’s towers, according to The National newspaper, who carried out an investigation into the Emirates’ high-rises in 2015.
It wasn’t in Dubai, though, but London where dazzling sun was to blame for the glare from the glass at 20 Fenchurch Street – better known as the Walkie Talkie – melting parts of a nearby parked Jaguar in 2013. In 2017, a helicopter crashed into St George Wharf Tower in Vauxhall and a window claimed the life of a passerby when it fell 27 floors from the Norman Foster-designed Corniche on Albert Embankment.
“Developers’ focus on building and selling, rather than aftercare support, compared to other industries such as luxury automotive companies, where you become a member of an exclusive club,” says John Brash, CEO of Brash global branding agency, whose projects include Dubai’s Burj Khalifa and London’s Chelsea Barracks.
As residential towers become ever higher and narrower – especially in cities such as New York, where space is at a premium and the super-rich will pay it for unparalleled views – these concerns will become ever greater, Brash adds. “The only way to resolve this is by getting the best project teams and consultants in the world focusing on innovation and excellence without cutting corners,” he says, citing the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, as “a building construction masterpiece, an 828-metre tower in the desert”.
London’s luxury high-rises may not be riddled with defects of the sort claimed by residents at 432 Park Avenue, but they come with their challenges. The wind chill is too great to use most outdoor terraces for much of the year (hence the popularity of enclosed ‘winter gardens’) – anyone who has walked around Canary Wharf or the Shard on a chilly day will know just what a wind tunnel feels like.
Abigail Gollicker, who lives in a residential tower in South London, marvels at the peregrine falcons that fly past her 22nd-floor living room and has adorned her balcony with wind-resistant plants. “But we worry about letting our chihuahua out for a wee in case he blows away!” she comments.
Another issue, thinks Peter Preedy of Alexander Millett property consultancy, is that while you may pay millions for a beautifully-designed high-rise apartment with fantastic views, “when you walk out the front door at street level, the area doesn’t warrant the high price tag – in Nine Elms and Blackfriars, for example. It’s different in New York where skyscrapers sit on the edge of Central Park. It’s not the same here; you can’t build high towers in the more sought-after golden postcodes.”
Brash thinks there are certainly cases in London of over-priced high-rise style over substance. “One centrally-located development had a great vision and ‘cool’ external architecture that matched the location, but the interior design was very ostentatious – designed to impress a specific demographic who weren’t living in or moving to the area,” he says. “Now, new units in this building are being sold at a discounted price, which is causing potential issues with existing residents.”
Which leads us back to Park Avenue, where only one of the 11 remaining units has sold since January. Clearly, however, the Saudi owner of the six-bed penthouse on the 96th floor is clinging to the “all publicity is good publicity mantra” as he has put his 8,255 sq ft property on the market – all furniture and artwork included – for $169m, which is twice the amount he paid for it in 2016.
The views over Central Park from this “sky mansion” are out of this world. But if you buy it, you’ll be praying those lifts don’t break down again any time soon.