From the start, one of the biggest concerns over the proposed Midtown East rezoning has been the fate of the area’s historic buildings. Midtown has its fair share of landmarks already, but it is no Upper East Side or Park Slope. No doubt there are precious older buildings worthy of preservation, or at least consideration for landmarks protections, especially when staring down all the development that is likely to come from a huge rezoning like the one the Bloomberg administration has proposed for Midtown East.
To that end, the Municipal Art Society has put forward 17 buildings it believes the city ought to consider protecting before the Midtown East rezoning goes into effect. The administration is rushing toward approving this plan sometime next year, but survey of the area’s historic buildings actually has more time than it might seem to proceed, since it has promised the rezoning will have a sunrise provision preventing it from taking effect until 2017. Still, that does not mean any of these buildings could be saved from being torn down and becoming the next Empire State Building.
“City Planning’s proposed East Midtown re-zoning has the potential to dramatically change the area and threaten the mix of old and new buildings that define the neighborhood as uniquely New York,” MAS president Vin Cipolla wrote in a release. “A holistic vision for the future of East Midtown must support a mix of businesses, people and buildings. Retaining the diverse, and historic, building stock is a critical component of maintaining a vibrant and successful business district.”
The administration wants to rezone Midtown East, particularly Park Avenue and the area around Grand Central, to allow for new, modern towers. Currently, more than 80 percent of buildings in the area are half a century old or older. To entice developers to tear down their buildings, they are being given generous development bonuses. In some cases, this could create spires bigger even than nearby landmarks like the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings.
As you can see from the list of 17 buildings MAS has selected out of hundreds in the neighborhood, this is not exactly a call for freezing the neighborhood in amber, as some might say (Columbia real estate director Vishaan Chakrabarti, among others, once sneered at the idea of preservation in the heart of the city’s central business district). But there are some good candidates, both old (Yale Club, Graybar Building) and modern (450 Park) worthy of consideration.
The problem the city and the activists encounter when pursuing such a program, however, is that development and preservation are inherently at odds. Consider 445 Park Avenue, a late 1940s office tower designed by Kahn & Jacobs. In its plea to the city, MAS describes it as, “The first post-war office building on Park Avenue–and the first fully air-conditioned commercial structure in New York City–445 Park Avenue set the stage for future development along Park Avenue.”
This is certainly some sacred history, but it underscores the very reason the administration has undertaken this plan. It wants to do away with old, obsolete offices like this very one, with outdated mechanicals and inferior (by modern standards) ceiling heights. In fact, in the Department of City Planning’s presentation on the subject, we see a number of old buildings that look quite a lot like 445 Park Avenue.
Just as there was a major fight over the creation of the Downtown Brooklyn historic district, one envisions that Midtown’s developers, already licking their chops over the possibilities of this rezoning, could be in full-on revolt should any of these landmarkings come to pass.
That does not mean they should not be pursued, simply that one is at odds with the other, and it is up to the city to determine what to do. As has been perhaps the biggest complaint thus far, the city may not be leaving itself enough time to do so.