Towering Controversy in Midtown East
A clash in visions for an iconic business district
by Mark Fahey
Taller buildings are on the horizon not only for the places where tomorrow’s New Yorkers will live, but also for the places they will work — the office towers that have long led the city’s climb towards the sky.
The fight over competing visions of a denser commercial city is playing out in Midtown East, where Grand Central Terminal and the Chrysler Building anchor what was once the world’s premier business district. City officials and developers are pushing for a rezoning that would almost double the current maximum building height.
Proponents say the new construction would keep the area competitive and prevent aging commercial buildings from being converted into homes and hotels — but concerns about the effects of a denser and even more congested midtown inspired a fierce public debate that ended in the plan’s defeat late last year.
“East Midtown is the densest place in the developed world, leaving aside East Asia,” said Raju Mann, director of policy and planning at the Municipal Art Society, an urban planning advocacy group that pushed for additions to the original rezoning plan Mayor Michael Bloomberg introduced last year. “Buildings like Grand Central deserve to be built respectfully around.”
Vacancy rates in the district remain low, but the average building in the area is more than 70 years old, and Midtown East will soon face competition from new office stock in the World Trade Center and the Hudson Yards mega-development on the west side. Business owners, developers and other stakeholders tend to agree that a zoning change is necessary.
But at public hearings and community board meetings last year, concerns emerged that the new upward expansion would not be matched by adequate improvements in the area’s already overstrained transit system and crowded sidewalks. The plan called for an air-rights system that would charge developers for square footage as they exceed existing zoning limits, using the payments to fund infrastructure improvements — but opponents said the funding was uncertain, the improvement details were incomplete and the air-rights pricing was too friendly to developers.
Buildings constructed prior to 1961
The framework for the Bloomberg zoning proposal
“The issue is what comes first, the chicken or the egg?” said Gene Russianoff, staff attorney for the Straphangers Campaign, a public transportation advocacy group that criticized the plan. “We want them to make the changes to transportation before they build all these office towers.”
The Grand Central Partnership, a business improvement district that serves about 10 blocks of the proposed re-zoned area, failed to reach a consensus about whether to support the Bloomberg plan. Many of the concerns about the proposal, including worries that a building boom would suddenly alter the skyline, were “sincere and heartfelt, but a little unrealistic,” said President Rob Burns.
Burns said both commercial and residential groups voiced passionate views on the plan. “It was such an open door policy,” he said. “That was probably one of the things that doomed it.”
By July 2013, eight of Manhattan’s 12 community boards had come out against the re-zoning, citing shortcomings in transportation, landmarking and pedestrian considerations. A task force set up by community boards 1, 4, 5 and 6 blamed the administration for a “needlessly rushed” rezoning that it said was “beholden to a political calendar.”
“It provides little to no guarantee than any of the public realm improvements will ever be implemented,” Community Board 6 Chair Sandro Sherrod told the City Council in October. “However, the plan does guarantee that developers will be able to raze our city’s architectural history for even more densely packed towers.”
The next month, Councilmembers Christine Quinn and Dan Garodnick announced that they would not support the rezoning of their districts, effectively killing the plan. A survey at the end of the year showed most Manhattan residents opposed the plan as it stood, and 85 percent said the city should “take the time to get the plan right.”
“It has to start from the fundamentals of the neighborhood and work up to the overall image of new development and density,” said Mann of the Municipal Art Society.
The city needs to build from a deep understanding of what brings people and companies to neighborhoods, including pleasant ground-level areas, effective transportation and the inspiration that pedestrians experience when they see historical landmarks like the Chrysler Building among the new skyscrapers, said Mann.
Advocates at the New York Landmarks Conservancy, which opposed the plan, considered the failure of the original zoning proposal an opportunity to protect more than a dozen historic buildings that could have been destroyed (see map). The Conservancy has presented its list of proposed landmarks to the Landmarks Preservation Commission and several have been calendared, the first step in the lengthy process.
“Several landmark-quality buildings were on sites that the plan would target for development,” said Andrea Goldwyn, director of public policy for the Conservancy. “We hope that the time in between the end of the old plan and the possible set of a new plan will give the commission time to designate those buildings.”
Sites targeted for landmark designation by the New York Landmarks Conservancy:
1. The Yale Club, 60 Vanderbilt Avenue 1915, James Gamble Rogers
2. Pershing Square Building, 125 Park Avenue (Also known as 100 East 42nd Street) 1923, York and Sawyer, with John Sloan
3. Postum Building, 250 Park Avenue 1925, Cross and Cross
4. Lincoln Building, 60 East 42nd Street (Also known as One Grand Central Place) 1930, James Edwin Ruthven Carpenter, Jr.
5. Graybar Building, 420 Lexington Avenue 1927, Sloan & Robertson
6. InterContinental NY Barclay Hotel, 111 East 48th Street 1927, Cross and Cross
7. Chemists Club (Dylan Hotel) 50-52 East 41st Street 1910, York & Sawyer
8. Benjamin Hotel (former Beverly Hotel), 125 E 50th Street (Also known as 557 Lexington Avenue) 1927, Emery Roth
9. Lexington Hotel, 511 Lexington Avenue 1928, Schultze and Weaver
10. Shelton Hotel (Halloran House), 525 Lexington Avenue (New York Marriott East Side) 1924, Arthur Loomis Harmon
11. Roosevelt Hotel, 45 East 45th Street 1925, George B. Post
12. 52 Vanderbilt Avenue (Manhattan Savings Bank Building) 1915, Warren and Wetmore
13. Grand Rapids Furniture Co.,18-20 East 50th Street (New York Health & Racquet Club) 1915, Rouse & Goldstone; Joseph L. Steinman
14. Union Carbide Building, 270 Park Avenue (JPMorgan Chase Tower) 1960, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill Gordon Bunshaft, Design Partner, Natalie de Blois, Senior Designer
15. 400 Madison Avenue 1929, H. Craig Severance 16. Girl Scouts of America, 830 Third Avenue 1957, Roy O. Allen of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill with William T. Meyer
The Department of City Planning is currently taking a fresh look at the rezoning, according to a statement by Commissioner Carl Weisbrod. Burns said that even if the community can agree on a zoning plan, it would take years for changes to be made, and most buildings would remain in place. A rezoning could help bring in tech companies to join the real estate brokers, law firms and medical firms that dominate the district, but Burns expects the area to remain competitive even without prompt action.
“Everyone wants to be where everyone else is, so it’s always going to be a central business location, a central core where the city’s business will be taking place,” he said.
Last month, Garodnick issued a letter calling for a new, more complete plan that would address the transportation, pedestrian and air rights issues. He said he expects a new proposal from Mayor de Blasio by the end of 2014.
Mann, too, is optimistic that a reissued plan will resolve conflicts. The issue isn’t really about whether higher density is coming, he said — it’s about what it will look like when it arrives.
“We believe in density in New York,” he said. “We live around it, we eat and breathe it every day. The question is where should development go and what should it look like?”
Back to Overview