Midtown Rezoning Would Let Developers Buy Height With Ped Improvements

The Midtown skyline could look very different, with new buildings (an example is shown in white) reaching taller than the Chrysler Building. Such height would only be allowed in return for funding pedestrian improvements in the area. Image: DCP via the Observer

Transit-oriented development is a virtuous circle. New transit infrastructure makes it easier and faster to get to a place, and then that place grows. New development in turn leads to demand to justify better infrastructure, and more tax dollars to pay for it. That, in a nutshell, is the story of how Manhattan grew into what it is today, first around streetcars, then els, and eventually the subways.

In its new proposal for a major rezoning of Midtown East, the commercial capital of the country, the Bloomberg administration is embracing this virtuous circle. Due in part to the billions of dollars being invested in the Second Avenue Subway and the East Side Access project linking the LIRR to Grand Central Terminal, the administration wants to allow a crop of new skyscrapers, some nearly as big as the Empire State Building. To build tall, though, developers will have to kick in funds to improve Midtown’s cramped pedestrian environment, above ground and below.

For a detailed look at how the zoning proposal will work, check out Matt Chaban’s write-up in the New York Observer. In short, though, the city plans to allow developers in the area — roughly from Madison Avenue to Third, and from 39th Street to 57th Street — to proceed with fewer procedural hurdles and to build bigger.

Along Park Avenue, new projects could be as large as Goldman Sachs’ new downtown headquarters, which is 43 stories tall. Around Grand Central, the transportation heart of the area, buildings could be roughly as big as the 51-story 1 Bryant Park. And if developers come up with something near Grand Central that exhibits “superior design relative to the sidewalk and the skyline,” said Frank Ruchala, the project manager for the Department of City Planning, it could reach taller than the Chrysler Building. The goal is to spark development in an area that only saw two new office buildings constructed in the last decade.

More office space around Grand Central would, on its own, promote a more sustainable regional transportation system. Almost every new Midtown commuter will take transit or walk to work. According to a separate DCP study, 86 percent of commuters entering the central business district during rush hour took transit in 2009.

DCP has structured the upzoning to improve the quality of those trips on train and on foot as well. To build taller than current zoning allows, developers will have to contribute to a new “District Improvement Fund” dedicated to public space and pedestrian improvements.

The price per square foot is still being determined, said Edith Hsu-Chen, director of DCP’s Manhattan office, but the mechanism is expected to raise millions of dollars. Hsu-Chen said the cost would be higher than a similar, but “severely discounted,” mechanism at Hudson Yards, where an extra square foot costs around $120.

In Midtown, there are already mechanisms in place to pair bigger buildings with better infrastructure, but there are significant drawbacks to the way those programs are structured. Plaza bonuses, for example, helped create a network of privately-owned public spaces, including both open passageways and enclosed lobbies. Some of those spaces now form the backbone of the new 6 1/2 Avenue pedestrian route through Midtown, but others are of little real use to the public.

A bonus for improving subway stations has had good results in many locations, Ruchala said, but the funds can only be spent in very specific areas, and there aren’t always good options to invest in. ”You get improvements that are not optimal for the entire district,” he said.

Under the new system, contributions from across East Midtown would be deposited in a dedicated fund and used to pay for the most-needed investments in the area. DCP officials, working with other city agencies and the MTA, have already identified two top priorities.

First, they want to improve pedestrian flow through the Grand Central subway station. New connections between the ground floor of the train station and the subway mezzanine and the mezzanine and the platforms, said Hsu-Chen, could enable people to get on and off the subway more quickly, easing a bottleneck that impedes the capacity of the entire Lexington Avenue line. The help will surely be appreciated by the cash-strapped MTA, which had budgeted for the city to provide some kind of mechanism to capture the property tax increases generated by East Side transit improvements.

Funds generated by new development could pay for the pedestrianization of most of Vanderbilt Avenue, illustrated here. Image: DCP via Observer

Above ground, the pedestrianization of most of Vanderbilt Avenue, already capturing the attention of the press, was seen as a way to add public space to a neighborhood that has almost none. “It’s almost an alley compared to what you’d like to see,” said Ruchala. A DCP slide showed four of five blocks closed to cars and turned into green open space — between 43rd and 44th, the street would stay open to traffic, to facilitate access to the train station — but officials cautioned that there was neither a firm plan for the space nor any funds allocated to build it. The first building permits under the new zoning wouldn’t be issued for five years, so under this plan, any Vanderbilt Avenue plaza would be many years away.

In response to a question from a member of Community Board 5 during a presentation last night, Ruchala said that district improvement funds could also be used to fund bus improvements in the area and that the list of projects would be flexible as the demands of the area change.

Many community board members wanted to separate the pedestrian improvements from the timeline of development, especially since DCP saw only “a handful” of buildings being constructed over the next decades. “Why does there have to be the quid pro quo of additional density?” asked land use committee chair Kate McDonough, who contrasted it with the Department of Transportation’s faster-moving plaza program.

The Department of City Planning is still studying one additional way to increase pedestrian space in Midtown. On Madison and Lexington Avenues, the sidewalks are narrower than on most Manhattan avenues, and pedestrians are particularly constricted. In response, DCP is debating whether to require a setback for new construction on those two avenues as a way to add a bit more space to walk in. Ruchala said the city considered widening the sidewalks, but that “given the needs of the bus lanes on Madison and the existing traffic, that would be hard to do.”