Greater East Midtown Rezoning Update, June 27
Tuesday, June 27, 2017
On June 7, 2017, the New York City Planning Commission approved a modified version of the East Midtown Rezoning, a major planning initiative proposed by Mayor de Blasio, sponsored by Dan Garodnick, and fine-tuned by the East Midtown Steering Committee. The bill is now with the New York City Council, and a public hearing on this proposal was conducted by the Council Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises on June 20. The Council may vote on this proposal as soon as the end of July. Read more on the NYC Council’s website: council.nyc.gov/land-use/plans/greater-east-midtown-plan.
The goal of the zoning changes is to incentivize new development in Midtown East in order to keep it as a Class A commercial area. This district is important to the City, as it represents 10% of the City’s tax base. With the zoning changes, 16 new office buildings are projected, bringing an additional 26,000 more office workers to the area. This would address the problem cited by developers that current zoning rules prevent them from building in the area.
An important part of the proposal is that the buildings will be “as of right,” meaning that no notice to Community Boards or approvals will be required, although certain certifications will still be required. Other objectives are to have buildings that support City goals for greenhouse gas emissions and energy efficiency, to obtain more open space and transit improvements and to allow landmarked properties to transfer unused development rights throughout the district. In addition, the rezoning would increase the height and density for the “Pfizer Block” between 42nd and 43rd Street, from 3rd to 2nd Avenue, where Pfizer world headquarters are currently located. Pfizer plans to sell the building and is expected to rent “more modern” offices in another part of Manhattan.
The planning initiative is an example of public-private partnership, and it asks private developers to provide transit and public realm improvements in exchange for zoning changes that allow for more height and density. The City has invested in the area’s transportation, with the East Side Access and the 2nd Avenue Subway projects. These new transportation initiatives, along with Grand Central Terminal and numerous subway and bus connections, make East Midtown an outstanding transit hub. The 2015 zoning changes for the Vanderbilt Corridor were the first phase of this planning initiative, making possible the construction now in progress at 1 Vanderbilt Place. It will be the 2nd or 3rd tallest building in NYC when completed, with a pedestrian plaza and transit improvements at that site.
At the June 20th public hearing conducted by the City Council Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises, representatives from the CPC, Metropolitan Transit Authority and Department of Transit summarized the proposal and answered questions on this proposal. Concerns and questions were presented by representatives from the City Council, Community Boards 5 and 6, community groups, business groups, labor groups, property owners, transit groups and others. Turtle Bay groups are concerned about where the Eastern boundary of the special district should be, loss of light and air due to the greater height and density of the projected new buildings, and preservation of existing public open spaces such as Greenacre Park on 51st Street.
Owners of landmarked buildings support the ability to transfer unused development rights to new development throughout the district. This would provide funds to maintain their buildings. They requested some changes to the details of how to calculate the value of the rights.
The transit improvements specified in the proposal, such as wider stairs, escalators, elevators and new subway entrances are expected to be done by developers for buildings near transit stations. Other improvements would be for safety and would be done by the DOT. DOT is also working on a plan to deal with the expected increase in traffic from having more people in the area.
Open space improvements would be expanded sidewalks, more plazas and “shared streets,” the City’s initiative to carve out street space not only for cars, but also for pedestrians, seating and other purposes. Some building owners asked for further analysis of the impact of the proposed pedestrian plazas on traffic, deliveries to buildings, accessibility, and the ability of first-responders to get to the buildings adjacent to pedestrian plazas.
Council Members are concerned about the administration of the fund for public realm improvements. Fund administrators would develop their own bylaws and be subject to state transparency laws. Council Members asked that the fund be separate from the City’s general fund, and that the proposal have very concise language describing how and when the funds must be used. Money for most of the above-ground improvements would come from the fund, although it is not clear if the amount expected to go into the fund would cover these desired improvements. The proposal does not have any provision for the City to put seed money into the fund or to cover any shortfalls.
Council Members at the hearing expressed concern about the up-zoning of the “Pfizer” block. The CPC’s position is that this is a correction to previously incorrect zoning.
Representatives of the City Club of New York, a group that advocates for thoughtful urban land use policy for all New Yorkers, stated that the need for the zoning changes and new office space has not been fully proved by the CPC. They asked for zoning changes to be postponed until the commercial space is occupied in Hudson Yards and in other new office spaces being developed around the City.
It was clear at the hearing that there are still several areas that need further analysis and clarification, but a vote is expected very soon.
Photo: 1 Vanderbilt Place Construction