Faulty Towers: Midtown Needs a Makeover, with Twice as Tall Towers, But Can Mayor Bloomberg Get It Right?

There are those who fear that the city is putting the cart before the conductor. One of the big arguments

It all starts with Grand Central. (Getty)

There are those who fear that the city is putting the cart before the conductor. One of the big arguments for rezoning Midtown East is the arrival of East Side Access, which will usher the Long Island Railroad into Grand Central by the end of the decade (assuming no further delays). The Second Avenue subway might someday reach the area as well. But at the same time, the city has made massive infrastructure investments in areas like Hudson Yards and the World Trade Center site, where the Related Companies and Silverstein Properties struggle to find tenants. These expenditures, for expanding the 7 train and rebuilding ground zero, were partly based on the argument that Midtown had seen its day.

The case for reviving it is good, but not at the cost of these other areas, the thinking goes.

“The public is spending billions of dollars at Hudson Yards and ground zero, and for good reason,” Raju Mann, a former city planner and member of Community Board 5, said a recent meeting of the board. “We haven’t even seen what these projects have produced yet, so how can we be sure what’s appropriate for Midtown East?”

And yet developers outside of Midtown East areas are not worried, pointing out that the city’s proposal could take years, if not decades, to come to fruition.

“My first reaction was to be concerned about it, but the more I thought about it, it’s a really long-term proposition,” Jay Cross, president of Related Hudson Yards, told The Observer. He said the proposal could even be self-defeating. “It will also make these buildings more valuable, just perceptually, which will drive up the building cost,” he said. “That means they cost more to trade and assemble the sites, and by the time you’ve done all that, you may not be able to afford to replace the buildings.

Larry Silverstein shared this sentiment at the topping out of 4 World Trade Center on Monday, his shiny new office building that remains half empty. “My hunch is, we’re going to do fine,” he said, pointing to the drift of New Yorkers to both live and work in Downtown and Brooklyn.

There are other demographic shifts afoot, as well, though, that could undermine the success of the city’s plan. If one area has flourished during the past few years it is not Midtown East or Hudson Yards but Midtown South. As financial firms, with their love of shiny buildings and vast trading floors, have retrenched, the city’s tech sector has flourished, and it largely prefers old buildings to new. Even those firms moving to Midtown, like Facebook and Twitter, are setting up shop on Madison Avenue, filling spaces that are more Mad Men than Blade Runner. “We don’t know what the office of the future will look like yet,” Mr. Mann said.

Mr. Rudin pointed out that the two do not have to be mutually exclusive. “We need office space of all types for all types of tenants,” he said. “The important thing is that we plan for the future.”

The past is an issue, as well, as some preservationists worry about taking a full accounting of Midtown’s historic fabric before we begin bulldozing it. “I’ll be the first to admit that just because a building is X years old doesn’t mean it’s worth saving and reusing,” said Peg Breen, president of the Landmarks Conservancy. “But we can’t just plow it all under and build Midtown anew. Why bulldoze the place without seeing what’s there first.”

Vishaan Chakrabarti, director of Columbia University’s real estate development program and former head of the Department of City Planning’s Manhattan office, warned against knee-jerk preservation in the heart of Midtown. “This is the engine for the entire city,” he said. “We cannot freeze it in amber. If we do, we’ll end up like Paris, a museum and nothing else.” Pro-development types love invoking Paris. It is the bête noire of businessmen the world over, apparently.

Still, the city argues that it is not obsessing over Midtown but instead finally giving it the attention it was used to in the past after a fair amount of neglect. “Really, this is a response to the five borough economic plan, which has focused outside of Midtown more than any administration ever has, I think,” Mr. Steel said.

This could be the case in more ways than one, as some traditional Midtown heavyweights, like SL Green, have felt neglected amidst the city’s westward expansion. Earlier this month, The Journal revealed that the city’s largest commercial landlord had teamed up with Hines, another player who has mostly developed along Third and Lex, to replace a clutch of turn-of-the-century buildings immediately west of Grand Central, on 42nd Street between Madison and Vanderbuilt avenues. The city freely admits that it is working with local stakeholders to craft its plan but denies that they are the ones sketching it out.

“We will listen to what our partners in the private sector have to say, as well as the community, but this is definitely the mayor and his team’s plan,” Mr. Steel said. One City Hall source even called it “Bob Steel’s baby,” the marquee project of the deputy mayor since he joined the administration two years ago.

Faulty Towers: Midtown Needs a Makeover, with Twice as Tall Towers, But Can Mayor Bloomberg Get It Right?