City Council Testimony in Support of Vanderbilt Corridor Rezoning

RPA testimony before the New York City Council Zoning and Franchises Subcommittee on April 13, 2015, in support of Vanderbilt Corridor and Private One Vanderbilt Draft Environmental Impact Statement, Amendment ULURP No. 150130(A)

Good morning.

My name is Tom Wright. I am the President of Regional Plan Association and I am here today to testify in strong support of the Vanderbilt Corridor rezoning and application for One Vanderbilt.

By almost any measure – jobs, office space, salaries, taxes, rents – East Midtown has few rivals around the globe. It is the heart of the central business district that fuels the economy of the city and metropolitan region.  It is one of the greatest generators of prosperity and wealth that humans have ever invented – a 24-hour district with iconic buildings, wonderful public spaces, extraordinary transit access, and a concentration of firms that literally shape markets and businesses around the world. This is where land, labor and capital all come together unlike anywhere else on the planet. But the older building stock in this neighborhood needs regular rebuilding, to ensure that we can provide the services, amenities and technology requirements of rapidly improving industries. With an estimated 2 million new jobs destined for the region over the next twenty-five years, we will also need room to expand in East Midtown as well as Lower Manhattan, the Far West Side and other office districts throughout the region. Securing and safeguarding the future of this district is our responsibility for future generations, who will benefit from the decisions you make today.

At Regional Plan Association, we pay special attention to the infrastructure systems that make this concentration of activity possible, including the housing markets that provide our labor force, the movement of goods to support those workers, and of course the transit system which is the lifeblood of our city. The transit system of our region is a modern wonder, providing over ten million daily trips in, out and around the city and region efficiently, sustainably and sometimes even comfortably. The maintenance and expansion of this system is among our highest priorities.

Fortunately, the proposal before the Council today achieves both of these goals – safeguarding and modernizing our commercial building stock while upgrading and improving our transit system – in proportional measures.

As we all know, two major transit investments – the Second Avenue Subway and East Side Access – will increase the supply of transit in and around this district. The day East Side Access opens, over half of the LIRR riders will enjoy a direct ride to the offices in East Midtown – some 80,000 travelers each day. Fortunately, the first phase of the Second Avenue Subway will be completed before then, providing some relief for long-suffering riders on the over-crowded Lexington Avenue line by siphoning 200,000 daily riders off the existing trains and buses on the east side.

The decision before you is critical to the future of the district. Through the application for special permits, the proposed zoning text change will address the challenges facing East Midtown in the coming years by incentivizing new, modern offices, retail, restaurant, enclosed public spaces and rooftop amenity spaces while expanding the potential for transit and public realm improvements.

In particular, the increase in allowed height and density for One Vanderbilt Avenue in exchange for over $200 million in public improvements is a good deal for New York City. Improving pedestrian circulation within Grand Central Terminal and its vicinity will greatly improve platform access and circulation for the 4, 5 and 6 subway lines with new stairs, an expanded mezzanine and trimmed columns and stairs on the platforms. These should improve circulation enough to allow the MTA to add an additional subway train during rush hour, helping relieve overcrowding on the system.

By creating an exit for the new LIRR terminal being built below Grand Central’s subway and MetroNorth platforms, the project will address a critical shortcoming of East Side Access. Without these improvements, it will take LIRR passengers several minutes to reach the street from the train level, cutting into the value of the $10 billion project. By creating a new exit that will bypass crowded train platforms and the food court, passengers will be able to reach the street much more quickly and easily.

Most importantly, if these improvements are not made now and integrated into the design and construction of One Vanderbilt, we cannot come back later and say “whoops, we would like to build that connection after all.” This is a one-time option that the city should grab.

I want to note that these investments won’t fix all of the circulation problems at Grand Central Terminal, especially those involving the #7 train, where use and congestion will increase when the new West 34th Street station opens in 2015 and as the Far West Side is developed. Additional funding will be required to address these issues and to give the station a complete overhaul. Future development in East Midtown should address these priorities.

Attention must also be paid to barriers to walking. RPA would rather see the subway sidewalk entrances in front of the Mobil building on Third Avenue moved into the building itself, as we have done in other districts with zoning changes that created incentives for off-sidewalk entrances – such as Times Square.  And newsstands that are removed for the construction period should probably not be put back where they block the free flow of pedestrian traffic, notably at the northwest corner at Vanderbilt and 42nd Street.  

And as with all public-private agreements, the terms of this transaction need to be open and transparent, and the City and the MTA need to set very specific performance standards for the improvements with reasonable penalties to be imposed if the terms and standards are not met.

However, the most important decision before you today is to approve this zoning application, so that One Vanderbilt and the improvements to our transit system can move forward as quickly as possible. The future of our city and region depends on these investments to maintain and improve our economy.

Thank you.