Equitable Building


Last week, yours truly was in New York City. Streetscapes like the one in the tweet below were very typical whether in Manhattan, the Bronx, or Brooklyn. And you know what? They worked. They were visually interesting spaces even if somewhat abrupt and unexpected. Buffy Sparks’s tweet however gets at the heart of a debate that’s been going on for nearly 100 years: height, bulk, and scale.

Structures like the Equitable Building (shown above) in Lower Manhattan were seen as shocking in the early 20th Century. People demanded that something be done to address the concerns for light and air. With the rapid densification of New York and buildings climbing to ever new heights, there were legitimate concerns that streets would simply become caverns of darkness and choked air. And so, zoning regulations were crafted to carry out these public desires in order to reduce the perceived impacts of height, bulk, and scale by requiring new buildings stepback upper floors. Today, these same desires persist widely–not just in New York City.

Stepbacked Buildings in Midtown Manhattan


The tall structure highlighted in the tweet below would not generally be permissible under New York City zoning codes now. Not because of its style per se, but rather due to its height and lack of upper floor stepbacks. As Buffy Sparks wisely notes, this building works within its context. It’s not choking out the air and doesn’t create a cavernous feel to the space. The space is still safe and it makes it interesting, despite being very different.

When people talk about building height, bulk, scale, and scale, it’s an aesthetic thing. Pinning down what is bad and good isn’t always clear. Even the most crowded and skyscraping places of Manhattan have something likable about them. Here in Seattle, it’s not uncommon to find starkly different building types in height, massing, and design on the same block. Perhaps we shouldn’t be afraid of that.


Article Author

Stephen is a professional urban planner in Puget Sound with a passion for sustainable, livable, and diverse cities. He is especially interested in how policies, regulations, and programs can promote positive outcomes for communities. With stints in great cities like Bellingham and Cork, Stephen currently lives in Seattle. He primarily covers land use and transportation issues and has been with The Urbanist since 2014.