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.