Based on the arguments made by those both for and against the Midtown East rezoning—a “sweeping proposal,” wrote New York magazine architecture critic Justin Davidson, with “swollen ambitions for the skyline”—one might think that the proposed land use change, which would affect 78 blocks between Second and Fifth Avenues and East 39th and East 57th Streets, would be a dramatic revision of New York City’s most hallowed business district.
Crain’s New York Business calls the plan “essential.” The Post’s Steve Cuozzo, ever a friend to big real estate, says it’s “vital to the city’s future, a way to ensure that Manhattan’s most desirable commercial zone can compete in the future with global capitals like London and Shanghai.”
Meanwhile, opponents of the plan to rezone the area north of Grand Central Terminal have painted it as a death knell for some of New York’s most iconic sites, and a massive imposition on an already-overburdened transit system. “The rezoning study makes no mention of protected-view corridors,” wrote starchitect Robert A.M. Stern, coming out against the plan in today’s New York Times. “I can hardly make my way to the stairways and escalators that lead to the Lexington Avenue subway platforms.”
The Municipal Art Society, which has proposed landmarking 17 pre- and postwar towers in the area (the Historic Districts Council has a list of 33), commissioned mock-ups of potential new towers that could obscure the district’s most famous buildings, writing, “The verifiable photo simulations show how iconic buildings such as the Chrysler building will not be visible from many vantage points if development occurs as proposed.”
But delve into the actual numbers on the proposed rezoning, and it starts to look like much ado about nothing. As the Wall Street Journal’s Eliot Brown pointed out on Twitter, only 3.8 million square feet of office development is expected beyond what would be built without any zoning changes, according to an environmental assessment released by the city on Friday, or 4.4 million square feet of total extra development taking into account all uses. (While more than 14 million square feet of new office space could rise, two-thirds of that would replace existing buildings.)
Compare this to the rezoning of Manhattan’s far west side earlier in Mr. Bloomberg’s term, where nearly 26 million square feet of new office space was allowed in Hudson Yards—an area with far worse transit and less new investment ($8.4 billion for East Side Access, which will bring the Long Island Rail Road into Grand Central, versus just $2.1 billion for the 7 train extension to 34th Street and 11th Avenue)—and the Midtown East rezoning starts to look downright puny.
With just 3.8 million square feet of new office development expected out of the plan in an area that already contains 70 million square feet of office space, the Midtown East upzoning would barely add more floorspace to the district than the Port Authority is building in One World Trade Center—3.5 million square feet of floorspace in one tower alone.
Even the Williamsburg and Greenpoint rezonings, which added over 30 million square feet of residential development rights, dwarf what Mr. Bloomberg and the real estate industry want to add to Midtown East.
Given the relatively small numbers involved, both sides should drop the histrionics: the Grand Central upzoning just isn’t that grand, and isn’t going to make or break Midtown East either way.