The last major rezoning push by the Bloomberg Administration in Manhattan could be upzoning the grand dames around Park, Madison and Grand Central. On June 6, the Department of City Planning (DCP) went to Community Boards 5 and 6 to open the discussion on East Midtown, a-yet-to-be-defined business district surrounding Grand Central. While Midtown is hardly a tabula rasa along the lines of Hudson Yards or the World Trade Center, rezoning has the potential, according to Edith Hsu-Chen, director of DCP’s Manhattan office, to “seed” a healthy amount of new development for the next ten, 20, or 30 years, while boosting the value of one of the world’s premier office addresses.
At least one developer has already taken notice. Earlier this month The Wall Street Journal reported that SL Green, one of the city’s largest commercial property owners with more than 25 million square feet of office space throughout Manhattan, has assembled a one-block parcel right next door to Grand Central between Madison and Vanderbilt on 42nd Street to be developed in a joint venture with architect-savvy developer Hines. The company has already rehabbed several old buildings in East Midtown, including 62-year-old 100 Park Avenue, which sports 14 green rooftops and LEED Silver certification. “If we don’t do something now,” Mary Anne Tighe, the powerful broker and CBRE chief officer has said, “in the fullness of time we might find these areas have become orphans.”
Edward V. Piccinich, SL Green’s executive vice president of property management and construction, appears to be in it for the long haul, but not without concern about the next Planning Commission. “Whoever goes in [to Midtown] is going to have to work in a very strategic way, whether it’s coordinating with the MTA, mixed-use development, or phasing and circulation,” he said. “It’s not just about creating a plaza.”
Developing East Midtown will not be for the harried or the faint of heart. The applicable zoning codes in the area are a paralyzing mess of contradictory allowances. The 1961 zoning law implemented floor area ratios, or FARs, in many cases tighter than what was already built. In 1982 a Special Midtown District was created to restrict FAR in an attempt to shift development west to help Times Square. The plan worked all too well and development in eastern Midtown slowed. Then in 1992 the Grand Central Subdistrict—from 41st to 48th streets and between Madison and Lexington avenues—was created to allow for air right transfers from Grand Central Terminal and other area landmarks to new developments nearby.
The average permitted FAR in East Midtown is 12 to 15, but in the Grand Central Subdistrict it can be as much as 21.6 FAR. The problem for developers is if they want to tear down an obsolete pre-1961 tower of, say, 21FAR, they can only build it back up to a post-1961 zoning allowance of about 15FAR.
And yet, in spite of the failed 1992 incentives, the still-in-place 1982 disincentives, and the added turn-offs of subway improvement requirements, mandated plazas, and a very public review process, the area still commands top dollar, although the study (don’t call it a plan yet) presented at Community Board 5 noted that there’s been just 0.06 percent annual growth rate in the past decade.
The new zoning will likely allow a 21.6 FAR with out any of the current constraints. It will also likely allow a massing cluster near Grand Central—where the taller buildings already exist, but are considered by many developers to be outdated and beyond renovation. Piccinich notes that many of today’s office tenants are looking for column-free continuous office floor plates, which are rare in buildings built before 1960.
The planning department’s study also pays extensive attention to pedestrian circulation and mass transit below grade. Any changes there would require intense coordination with the MTA. By 2019 Long Island Rail Road’s East Side Access project will be funneling a horde of LIRR commuters through the same MTA tunnels that Metro North passengers use. Hsu-Chen said an already existing bottleneck at the subway turnstiles has got to be part of the conversation, too.
With world-class congestion below grade, it’s almost perverse to note the desolate quality of Vanderbilt Avenue. This dank but grand old side street was left adrift when 9/11 put a stop to the taxi drop-offs at the Vanderbilt Entrance to Grand Central. The site has obvious potential for a DOT plaza.
Upzoning has its champions, but the concerns are many. Preservationists were already gunning at the proposal months ago. But even Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic District Council, acknowledged the area needs help. “They’ve always had tall buildings around [Grand Central],” he said, adding that the real problems have to do with infrastructure and pedestrian circulation. “I hope they don’t do too many slabbed plazas,” he added.
The main objection voiced at CB5 and by opponents is that there are millions of square feet of brand new office space to be leased at the World Trade Center and at Hudson Yards. Planning’s Hsu-Chen stated the obvious: Planning’s job is to plan. The implication was that Bloomberg’s time is running out and the Commission cannot wait until Hudson Yards and World Trade Center are leased before taking action on Midtown.