Dean Clough

December 28, 2022

Portico Darwin: Pencil Neck Geeks


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I trust you had a great Christmas.  Us?  Well, Christmas Day itself was fine, but let's just say all good things must come to an end. 

After a positively Diamond Certified almost 3 weeks in Hoboken and NYC, it all screeched to a halt when, about 20 minutes before boarding, Alaska Airlines canceled our EWR-SFO nonstop Christmas evening. 

I will say you haven't lived until you've wasted 5 hours of your life going to and from EWR in frigid temps in expensive Ubers on Christmas night, and reveling in that airport's third-world facilities - all for absolutely no reason.  So while I am extraordinarily grateful for the amazing trip itself - I hope you've scanned the Travel Guide to see why - let's just say I won't be traveling on Christmas or around it any time soon.  And yes:  agreed it's all a first-world problem for a spoiled white man.

But before we leave NYC - almost uniformly great times with just a teensy bit of bad at the end - in our rearview mirror, take a look at this. 
Pencil (1).jpg

It is a picture from north looking south, across Central Park in Manhattan.  Does anything look strange to you?  Maybe the ridiculously thin, ridiculously tall buildings, the ones with the ridiculously expensive condos?

Today, I will attempt to explain what I and others call The Pencil Buildings.  To summarize:  they're a result of a thin stew of air rights, grotesque wealth, and zero oversight. 

I have become increasingly interested in these literal monoliths over time, but especially during my recent visit, as they are everywhere in NYC now.  The picture above is Central Park South, but the same thing, maybe with even more of them, is happening in the ginormous Hudson Yards district on the West Side. 

Seeing them all, and wanting to better understand how what is essentially a new Manhattan skyline came to pass, led me to this thorough and lengthy analysis in The Guardian

For you non-real estate fanatics, I will summarize and comment upon (shocker) the article's main points and salvos.  I hope you'll click on some of the links for the websites for the condos themselves - if you wonder if the rich have perhaps gotten too much so, these places (many on what's rightly called "Billionaire's Row") will seal the deal.

Air Rights
The whole thing can happen in the first place because land owners in Manhattan can sell their property's air rights - the right to develop above an existing building - to others.  But, and this is what largely enables these buildings, a developer can also "acquire unused airspace nearby and add it to their own lot".  It's all about "Transferrable Development Rights" and "Floor Area Ratio"; these graphics from The Guardian go a long way in explaining the overall concept, and how it's been perverted into The Pencil Buildings.


Grotesque Wealth
There was a time when the only way to really show off your big, big money was with a megayacht, and to a degree, that's still true.  It's still pretty hard to spend $500 million or more on a house.

But that's changing.  Some of the condos in these buildings reach well into 9 figures, and a description of one from the article helps to explain how.

A miniature bronze model of the tower serves as the apartment’s front door handle, which turns with an expensive clunk to reveal a lair of untold opulence.  It is a place where the walls of his-and-hers dressing rooms are covered with leather and velvet, where sinks are carved from solid blocks of Italian onyx, where walnut drawers are lined with ostrich skin. 

Yeah, I won't have anything but ostrich skin in my own walnut drawers, either.  But I digress.

For your wealth porn pleasure, I've compiled the links to all of The Pencil Buildings listed in the article.  I need write nothing else on how truly obscene the wealth gap has become - I can simply ask that you look at these websites.   

Central Park Tower
220 Central Park South (its penthouse sold for $238 million - it's the most expensive home in America)
One 57
111 West 57th Street

Yet I agree with a quote from the piece:  wealth inequality is an issue to be addressed with tax and public policy, not on prohibiting these buildings from being built at all.  And I know I'd probably have one myself if I had billions.

But . . .

There's Zero Oversight
I think of all the shock-and-awe in the article, this is what really blew me away.  Now, in SF, we bemoan the insane maze of bureaucracy that must be navigated for anything to happen.  I myself highlighted the million dollar, multi-year project to build a single bathroom in a neighborhood.  So it takes forever for anything to get going or approved.  Ask Günther Strobel!

But in Manhattan?  Once the air rights are secured, there are no permits or reviews or neighborhood outreaches or anything else required for the developer to start building.  Don't like the forced esthetic on the general public?  That's a shame - this is 432 Park Avenue.

Still, it's hard to argue with the fact that 

these towers “will not add one single square foot of built density to the city”, given that allowable density is finite.  “It’s a cap-and-trade system,” she says, so once air rights are transferred from a low-rise lot, it will stay low for ever.  The rules merely allow potential floor area to be shifted, not created.

But I think there's a balance to be found between policies that result in Manhattan's Pencil Neck Geeks, vs. the crippling corrupt dysfunction of SF's policies that result in nothing?  Your thoughts?


Check out the classically trained Arthur pushing vintage AC/DC!  Bob Scarf will be psyched!

Great watching these guys at their peak:

AC/DC - LIVE Apollo Theatre, Glasgow, April 30, 1978 Full Concert (4K AI upscaled pro-shot)

There is simply nothing like Bon Scott-era live AC/DC - end of story.

Here's a holiday winner from the dog-loving young executive Kevin Monza, of his adorable pup, Popeye.
Very cute.  But is that a cape, or what? 

And the reviews are pouring (OK, three readers responded) in on my endless Metro NYC Travel Guide.  I could not have been happier when I got this from Ms. Jet Set herself, Nicki Vale.

You have inspired me, booking my trip for next year 😍. 

Even a reader now cloaked in her sought-after anonymity spoke up:

Thank you, Portico, for sharing this wonderful review.  You have almost convinced me to plan a trip to Hoboken.

Almost?  I'll never make it as an influencer.

Thank you to any one that is reading this newsletter.


Although I wish it had been from his album Skyscraper, here is funnyman David Lee Roth and my favorite song from his troubled solo career, and one so appropriate for today's topic, the Killer "A Little Ain't Enough".

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