How many New Yorkers, after a long day of work, are headed home, a little beaten down, look up and think to themselves, “You know what Midtown needs? Bigger buildings.”
Probably not very many. But this is a question the Department of City Planning and the Bloomberg administration are very seriously considering as they work on rezoning a huge swath of Midtown East, the vaguest details of which were revealed to the land use committees of Community Boards 5 and 6 last night.
The goals of the plan, first revealed, also vaguely, in the mayor’s State of the City address, are quite reasonable. Like it has with so much of the city, from the Far West Side to the Brooklyn waterfront to downtown Jamaica, Queens, the administration wants to revise a set of zoning principals first laid out in 1961, and changed little since.
Meanwhile the world has, as has the city, and in order to stay competitive with places like London, Shanghai and Abu Dhabi, Midtown, where 80 percent of buildings are 50 years old or older, must modernize. “We need to think of the global context,” said Edith Hsu-Chen, director of the department’s Manhattan office.
This idea gave a number of community board members pause, though. While there was modest concern that Midtown is indeed dense enough as it is, many agreed that improvements could also be made. The big question was whether giving developers a huge development bonus, as appears to be the main thrust of the rezoning, would achieve the goals the city hopes to achieve.
Details were scant, but the area the department is looking at was outlined, an 85-block swath running from 40th Street to 57th Street, between Fifth Avenue and Third Avenue, except for a section of Second Avenue in the East 40s. This brackets a section of the neighborhood the department is especially interested in, roughly 20 blocks surrounding Grand Central Terminal. The one other detail to emerge was an interest in improving Park Avenue, ensuring its place as the city’s premier business address.
To put things in perspective, this roughly 250 acre rezoning would be almost 10 times as large as Hudson Yards, and according to one city planning source could increase development rights in the area by as much as 50 percent, depending on what set of recommendations the department embraces. As Real Estate Board president Steven Spinola explained a few weeks ago during a different discussion on the future of Midtown, “right now, our buildings top out around 50 stories. Why shouldn’t they top out around 80 stories? They do in a lot of other great cities.”
Including in Hudson Yards, and even exceed that height at the slowly redeveloping World Trade Center. And this was perhaps the greatest concern for community board members. “The public is spending billions of dollars at Hudson Yards and ground zero, and for good reason,” said Raju Mann, a member of Community Board 5. “We haven’t even seen what these projects have produced yet, so how can we be sure what’s appropriate for Midtown East?”
He also argued that the whole rationale for investing in these areas was because the administration had argued that Midtown was outmoded. Now to reinvest in that neighborhood, worthy as it is, could undercut the others before they have a chance to take root. The department counters that because Midtown is indeed built up, it will not develop over night and be a direct competitor to these areas, but instead this is a rezoning that will play out over two or three decades. Ms. Hsu-Chen made special note of a marked lack of office development in Midtown in the past decade to drive home the point that current zoning does not work.
Such ambitions also had community board members worried, as they felt the plan is moving too quickly given its size and scope. The department plans on releasing a more concrete vision in July, which it will study and modify throughout the fall before submitting it for public review in the first quarter of 2013. “For something so big, and so important, that seems awfully fast,” said Kate McDonough, chair of board 5’s Land Use Committee. The implication was that this was one last land grab by developers before the Bloomberg administration leaves office at the end of next year.