In the spring of 1912, the management at the Equitable Life Insurance Company had a lot of reasons to be cautious. In January their New York headquarters, the first office building with a commercial elevator and a structure touted to be fireproof, had proven itself not to be so. A fire that started in the basement had gotten out of hand, due in part to a cold snap freezing the water in the fire hoses, and left the building unusable. Six people were killed in the fire and the damages were estimated in the millions. But despite this turn of bad luck, the company was saved since the building’s vault was able to protect the almost $400 million being stored on-site.
That caution was what likely caused those in charge of Equitable Life Insurance to replace their burned-down headquarters with a building that would maximize the utility of the large parcel on Broadway in the Financial District in Lower Manhattan. The plans that would ultimately be accepted would turn the acre-sized lot into a 38 story H-shaped tower that would clock in as the largest office building at the time with around 1.2 million square feet of usable office space. While this cautious design gave the financiers the best chance at recouping their losses, it didn’t take the rest of the neighborhood into consideration. The building’s exterior walls started at the edge of the sidewalk and went straight up to the roofline, creating a hulking structure that casts a seven-acre-long shadow. Locals complained about the detrimental effects on their properties, especially because the width of the building created shadows that could engulf entire city blocks in shade for a large portion of the day.
The pushback from the Equitable Life Building was the impetus of the country’s first setback laws. As buildings got taller, they were required to reduce the amount of shade that they cast, creating the wedding cake shape that many buildings of the era conformed to. It also created a debate about who gets to decide how much shade is acceptable—and even when the definition of shade even is.
Shade is one of the acceptable “objective standards” for most states, including California. In a push to reduce barriers to new development in a State that desperately needs more housing, California passed two state bills that would reduce local jurisdiction’s ability to oppose development with “subjective standards” like changes to neighborhood character or density. But even shade has become a topic for debate as some see it as an easy way for local landowners to oppose new development. Now there is a movement in cities like Berkely to clearly define exactly what constitutes shade and how much shade can and should be allowed.
Restricting a neighbor’s access to natural light is objectively a bad thing. Rules can help prevent buildings like the Equitable Life Building from being built in a way that takes away from its surroundings rather than adds to it. These rules can also be twisted to advance someone’s agenda. The difficulty lies in finding a code-based way to approve development that also allows for nuance. For example, Berkeley has a code that allows buildings on its main drag, University Avenue, to have tall parts of buildings adjacent to the main street but step down to meet the lower rise buildings that line adjacent ones. A building’s impact on its neighborhood should always be considered. The shadows of buildings have been considered since the construction of the Equity Life Building, now it might be time to rethink how much shade is acceptable in order to help our cities meet our sustainability and affordability goals.