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In New York City, where space is at a premium, developers tear down residential buildings to create new ones that climb higher and higher into the sky — projects that could create thousands of apartments to help alleviate the city’s affordable housing crisis.

But on the Upper East and West Sides of Manhattan, a bundle of high-rise, low-density towers represent a contradiction: big towers with few units, sometimes fewer than the buildings they replace. Urban planners say the developers are squandering the precious few sites left in Manhattan’s high-density neighborhoods, where substantially more units could be built.

At 15 West 96th Street, a developer is building a 22-story tower with 21 condo units, though zoning would have allowed 66 units at the location, according to a zoning analysis. At 200 East 75th Street, a new 18-story high rise will have 36 luxury apartments though the building could have had as many as 144 units through zoning rules. At 1165 Madison Avenue, a developer could have built 88 units, but a new tower there is 13 stories and has 11 units, including a more than 13,000-square-foot, four-story unit that sold for more than $65 million.

Such projects have a cumulative effect. From 2010 to 2020, the Upper East Side lost more housing units than any other community district in the city, primarily through the combination of smaller apartments and demolitions, according to the Department of City Planning.

The builders argue that the cost of land and construction is too high for almost anything but luxury condominiums, without new tax incentives or more favorable zoning. Still, there are steps the city and state could take, housing proponents said, that could encourage or require developers to do more.