Developers are raring to line their pockets. New zoning regulations would kickstart what the Commercial Observer describes as “a forest of new office towers in one of the city’s densest commercial districts.” The Midtown East upzoning proposal had gone from “a hotly contested rezoning under Mayor Michael Bloomberg to a relatively uncontroversial one under Mayor Bill de Blasio.”
City planning officials tried to balance competing interests in the rezoning proposal. In March, however, Community Boards 5 and 6 withheld their support for the proposal pending action on their own reservations. These included concern that the plan lets developers buy air rights from landmarked buildings immediately but lets the city delay public improvements enabled by the air-rights money.
The general idea behind the rezoning is that Midtown East’s building stock is aging, undermining its ability to compete. So the plan encourages greater density and height and makes it easier for developers to demolish the older stock. All these developer bennies would accrue in return for investment by developers in public open space and transportation. But the qualms of boards 5 and 6 raise the anxiety of many that the fix may be in—the old bait-and-switch.
This is the same accusation de Blasio faced as he pushed through his broader Manhattan-wide zoning reforms last year. Critics worried that developers would benefit from easier permitting for market-rate residential towers long before they took required steps to expand affordable housing.
New York observes centennial of America’s first zoning law
Last year the city celebrated the centennial of America’s first zoning law. It famously mandated setbacks in skyscrapers to let more light filter down to city streets. Respect for the importance of letting the sun get down into the city has certainly not kept pace with the times. De Blasio’s latest rezoning proves it.
Critics of the rezoning focus on achieving a proper percentage of air-rights money landmarks must share with the city. They also question the accuracy of measurements: How might new building heights block out the sun’s rays at any given hour of the day? But the real concerns should begin with a more basic assessment of its premises. Would more height and density actually improve the ability of Midtown East to compete?
Would public space make up for increasing crowds on the streets
Certainly you’d be able to stack more firms into buildings with bigger floor plates reaching higher up into the sky. But would more money from air rights to finance more open space and better transit infrastructure actually improve the quality of life in Midtown? Would the new public space make up for the increasing crowds on the streets? Pedestrians would be squeezed by more construction scaffolding to accommodate more new buildings. The upzoning calls expressly for “modernized” commercial buildings.
Expect to see more globalized sterility at the expense of older buildings. Landmarked or not, these older building exude an elegance supporting what remains of the district’s historical allure. The chill in the streets might derive as much from the increasing glass and steel in the sky as from the increased shadows on the ground. Are the proposed changes truly guaranteed to improve Midtown’s competitiveness, or might the reverse be more likely?
Expect to see more globalized sterility at the expense of older buildings
The Department of City Planning estimates that the average age of the 1,335 buildings in Midtown East is 75 years. Some 60 percent were built more than half a century ago. Upzoning would place historic buildings at greater risk. With 12 designations last November, Midtown contains 50 buildings landmarked by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Keep in mind that while all landmarked buildings are historic, not all historic buildings are landmarked, not by a longshot. Nor does landmark status provide failsafe protection for designees, let alone their neighbors. A “forest of new office towers” leaves us to suppose that if we build them they will come. But while they may come, they may turn right around and go back if the environment created by upzoning is too oppressive.
What is One Vanderbilt Replacing?
To get an idea of what might be in store for parts of Midtown East, look at the proposed One Vanderbilt. This 67-story office tower will soon arise on the site, now cleared, of Terminal City across from Grand Central. (It will tower over the Chrysler Building.) Demolished was a grouping of five buildings, which included designs by Warren & Wetmore and Carrere & Hastings. They were not considered to be extraordinary works by two premier architectural firms of a century ago. But they were probably more enticing in appearance than 1 Vanderbilt. Kohn Pedersen Fox, an architecture firm not famous for its ornamental detail, designed it. Terminal City was rezoned in 2015 under the Vanderbilt Corridor Rezoning Text Amendment.
While they (businesses) may come, they may turn right around and go back if the environment created by upzoning is too oppressive.
While most of the city’s civic institutions backed the Midtown East zoning proposal, development in Manhattan has always been a crapshoot pitting divergent visions of “progress” for the city, some with greater and others with less ability or inclination to game the system. The new zoning regs will widen the avenue of possibility for those who enjoy the asphalt jungle more than they enjoy the gentle garden of a vest pocket park. Whatever happens, that is one constant that will not change
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