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NYC Mayor’s Push for Rezoning Rankles Critics

East Midtown development needed, but some say slow down

By Zachary Stieber
Epoch Times Staff
Created: January 30, 2013 Last Updated: January 31, 2013
Related articles: United States » New York City
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Lexington Avenue in east Midtown, part of the area proposed for rezoning. (Samira Bouaou/The Epoch Times)

Lexington Avenue in east Midtown, part of the area proposed for rezoning. (Samira Bouaou/The Epoch Times)

NEW YORK—Rezoning east Midtown would bring a fresh mix of new buildings, a mix that must happen for the area to compete with other international business hubs, according to Robert Steel, deputy mayor. But the plan has met with a growing number of naysayers, most of whom agree that the change should happen but say it’s happening too fast.

“This area is falling behind,” Steel said, comparing the average age of buildings (73) to those in London’s Central Business District (40).

“We believe that we need to be asking the hard questions about how do we refresh and refocus east Midtown to ensure its success for the next 100 years,” he added, speaking at a Crain’s business forum Tuesday, in east Midtown.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration has approved 122 rezonings, according to Steel. East Midtown would likely be the last major one.

Tension

St. Bartholomew’s Church on Park Avenue in east Midtown, New York. (Samira Bouaou/The Epoch Times)

St. Bartholomew’s Church on Park Avenue in east Midtown, New York. (Samira Bouaou/The Epoch Times)

But the plan is filled with details that need ironing out; and some, including most of the elected officials in the area, want the plan pushed back at least six months for further examination.

“I wish we had a little more time,” said Council member Dan Garodnick, for studying the potential impact, including on Grand Central Terminal. Steel shook his head and looked up at the ceiling.

Though civil, Garodnick and Steel wrangled over whether the planned rezoning is too fast or proceeding just right.

Steel said the Bloomberg administration views themselves as stewards, with a responsibility to take a long perspective on what’s right for the city.

“And the executive branch basically has to be the decider on lots of these issues,” he added.

Bloomberg has told his officials, “’We’re going to run to the finish line and take care of our responsibilities,’” said Steel. “This falls right into the category.”

In response to the administration, Garodnick said, “Our request to city planning: Don’t box us in here.”

Garodnick is joined in opposition to the rezoning rush by the three Midtown community boards (4, 5, and 6), and Assemblyman Dan Quart, Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, and state Sens. Liz Krueger and Brad Hoylman.

A view of Vanderbilt Avenue, with Grand Central Terminal on the right side. One aspect of the proposed rezoning is using money developers pay to build higher to make transit and pedestrian improvements, potentially including making this part of Vanderbilt Avenue a pedestrian plaza. (Samira Bouaou/The Epoch Times)

A view of Vanderbilt Avenue, with Grand Central Terminal on the right side. One aspect of the proposed rezoning is using money developers pay to build higher to make transit and pedestrian improvements, potentially including making this part of Vanderbilt Avenue a pedestrian plaza. (Samira Bouaou/The Epoch Times)

 

Sunrise

The proposal, if certified as expected in the spring, will enter into a land use review process that takes at least eight months.

If it passes through that, then a sunrise provision means the rezoning wouldn’t take effect until 2017, mostly to avoid competition with Hudson Yards, on the West Side. The World Trade Center towers are also struggling to find tenants.

Even in 2017, though, east Midtown could take away key revenue from the city, which is invested in Hudson Yards and expecting pay back through property taxes, said Garodnick.

But there wouldn’t be a competition, according to Marc Wurzel, general counsel with the Grand Central Partnership.

A map of the proposed rezoning area. The areas are colored by degree of development, from red immediately around Grand Central Terminal to orange, light orange, and yellow. (Courtesy of Department of City Planning)

A map of the proposed rezoning area. The areas are colored by degree of development, from red immediately around Grand Central Terminal to orange, light orange, and yellow. (Courtesy of Department of City Planning)

“We think that the types of businesses that want to do business here near the terminal are different than the businesses that may want to relocate there,” he said, advocating for no sunrise provision.

For instance, property owner SL Green has a block of properties across the street from Grand Central, and wants to clear those buildings, tear them down, and build a new state of the art office tower. Yet the company would have to wait until 2017.

Steven Spinola, president of The Real Estate Board of New York, said the pause lets owners plan and calculate whether development is worth it.

Too Many People?

Grand Central, the anchor of the area, already has overcrowding on its subway platforms.
With 4 million square feet of commercial development in east Midtown, an estimate, and an additional 80,000 people from the East Side Access project (bringing the Long Island Rail Road into Grand Central), the infrastructure needs are significant—about $400 million.

Garodnick wants a commitment now—regardless of the east Midtown proposal—to fund the needs. Steel said they’re happy to work with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. To build higher buildings under the planned rezoning, developers would need to put money into a fund, which would be dedicated to transit and pedestrian improvements. The Department of City Planning doesn’t know how the pricing would work yet.

Rezoning Timeline

Spring 2013: Certification
Winter 2013: End of review process
2017: Developers can act

Protecting Landmarks

Some buildings considered landmarks (but not classified as such) should be protected, according to preservation groups.

After the Historic Districts Council learned about the extent of the proposed zoning, staff began preparing a map of buildings the council wants kept as is, which they released Monday. The council’s map has 33 buildings, while the map the Municipal Arts Society submitted to the Preservation Committee in early December has 17 buildings.

The city didn’t ask either to identify the buildings, but the council did it in response to the planned rezoning, said Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the council.

When asked if the process is too rushed, he said it is.

“It’s an enormous, very complicated process, the fine details of which are still seemingly being worked on, to the degree that there’s a great deal of confusion within the community,” he said, “and even in the agencies.”

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