The Station that Started It All: How Grand Central Embodies the Battle Over Midtown East

Grand Central Station: an example of balancing progress and preservation well. (TravelJapanBlog)

Grand Central: progress vs. preservation. (TravelJapanBlog)

When the plan to rezone Midtown East was revealed last year, there was much excitement and much grumbling, but the outlines of the battle to come lacked definition. In retrospect, it seems so inevitable: how could the conflict over the heart and soul of the city’s central business district take any shape but that of progress versus preservation?

It is a conflict that haunts, if not defines, every land use debate in the city, and a particularly fitting one for Midtown. The district developed around, and largely because of, Grand Central station—a building that not only epitomizes the conflict, but helped to define it.

Grand Central Terminal lauded for setting the legal precedent that went on to save landmarks across the city, was actually built over the demolished ruins of another landmark—Grand Central Depot. The Depot, despite its relatively recent vintage (it was completed in 1871) and its popularity (it was second as a tourist attraction only to the Capitol in Washington, according to Sam Roberts’s book on the terminal) was destroyed without sentiment in the early 1900s, making way for the Gilded Age beauty that now stands on 42nd Street.

The old Grand Central, demolished to make way for change.

The old Grand Central, demolished to make way for change.

But what of the fact that the mansard-roofed station boasted a “magical” 652-foot-long arch-ribbed-vault train shed, had the largest interior space on the North American continent and provided the backdrop wherein we first set eyes on Lily Bart in the House of Mirth? Pretty details all, but progress called. The electrification of the rails was the way of the future and the depot had to go.

To finance its construction, Grand Central Station pioneered the sale of air rights, a practice that transformed the surrounding neighborhood, which was something of a backwater when Grand Central Station was constructed. Its resultant character—which preservationists are so eager to see maintained—was formed by the forces of development, forces that could care less about the past, or the semi-pastoral quality of the land they so eagerly converted into a business district. Nor did its developers seem to have any illusions that the architects’ vision of the final station would be sealed in amber. Engineering provisions were made for the construction of a (never-built) tower over the terminal.

The sale of air rights went on to spur development in neighborhoods around the city. So much so that 100 years later, air rights are the centerpiece of the Midtown East rezoning proposal—the powerhouse that is to drive the neighborhood’s next transformation.

It is, of course, no surprise that a new and somewhat radical station would be bedfellows with other new and radical things. Nor is it particularly surprising that some years down the road, when Grand Central was no longer so new or so radical, it would nearly fall victim to those same pro-development forces, who saw it as an impediment to change (and profits).

And so, the symbol of brave progress and growth became a beleaguered old beauty that needed to be protected from greed-induced destruction. For most people, it is this, more recent vision, that springs to mind most readily when one thinks of Grand Central. Jackie O. front and center, that arbiter of taste, defending New York’s grand monument. It was, moreover, a historic battle: Penn Central Transportation Co. v. New York City went all the way to the Supreme Court (the first historic preservation case to do so) and established that the city could use its landmarks law to protect a property from being torn down (that the act was not an unjust taking, but within the land-use regulatory power of government).

In the decades since, landmarking has been used to preserve not only buildings, but an increasing number of pockets within the city. And, after three terms of Mayor Bloomberg’s strongly pro-development policies, it has increasingly come to seem like the only real tool that community groups and neighborhoods have to stop (rather than simply modify) unwanted changes. As such, the dialogue between the pro-preservation and pro-development forces has become ever shriller, the two camps now diametrically opposed, in our rapidly changing city.

There are many issues with the Midtown East rezoning besides the preservation of unlandmarked buildings. It is, as a growing chorus of critics have complained, hurtling along very (quite possibly too) quickly. The speed leaves little time to examine its impact or whether the city is selling air rights for too little—giving a generous gift to developers that it can ill afford, particularly considering the costs of transportation and pedestrian upgrades that greater density will require.

But the battle lines have been drawn and now we’re all stuck squabbling over the historic significance of buildings in Midtown East. Perhaps this is the only way to hash out a plan that’s agreeable to both parties, but if the opposing camps’ recent publications are any indication, they seem to be moving farther apart rather than closer together.

This past week, both the Municipal Art Society and Midtown 21C, a pro-development group backed by REBNY, released reports each purporting to be the best visions for the future of Midtown East. MAS’s report, entitled “A Bold Vision for the Future” lists 17 buildings that it claims would be prime candidates for landmarking. Midtown 21C’s report, entitled “Icons, Placeholders and Leftovers” argues that every building worth landmarking has already been landmarked (hence the focus on placeholders and leftovers).

MAS claims that the vibrancy of the central business district owes much to its current character. Midtown 21C argues that the central business district will cease to have any vibrancy if we stand in the way of its “continuous transformation.” MAS sees a district with lots of architecturally and historically significant buildings. Midtown 21C sees a district with lots of dowdy and dated office buildings.

Both groups are right; successful cities are successful precisely because they are a blend of the old and the new, tradition and change, historic buildings and fresh development. We should save truly noteworthy buildings and allow developers to tear down the unexceptional and the outmoded. In the months to come, the city must decide what to keep and what to discard, how to preserve the elements that make Midtown what it is, while clearing away the detritus that’s stopping it from becoming what it needs to be. We would do well to consider Grand Central, a model of how development can create beloved buildings and how preservation can save them.

kvelsey@observer.com