East Midtown Rezoning - City Council Hearing

RPA testimony before the New York City Council on October 22, 2013, in support of East Midtown Rezoning ULURP C 130248 ZMM; N 130247 ZRM

By almost any measure—jobs, office space, salaries, taxes, rents—East Midtown has few rivals across the globe.  It is the heart of the central business district that fuels the economy of the city and the New York region.  It is also a dense, 24-hour district with some of the world’s most iconic buildings, as well as some of the city’s most crowded streets and subways. Given East Midtown’s commercial success, as well as its pedestrian and transportation challenges, the proposed rezoning raises a number of legitimate concerns. If East Midtown is already a vibrant but crowded job center, why create incentives for additional development? If the streets and subways are too crowded, shouldn’t we be focused on fixing those instead?  And with millions of square feet of new office space being added in Lower Manhattan and West Midtown, is there a need for even more office towers?

Yet in spite of East Midtown’s success, the rezoning addresses a need that won’t become fully apparent for several years. The proposal isn’t as much about adding more office space as it is about ensuring that the district continues to evolve and adapt in a rapidly changing world. East Midtown already has several unremarkable and outdated structures whose low ceilings and interior columns deter potential activities and tenants. Businesses are moving toward open floor plans and amenities that these structures don’t provide. Under current zoning, the district will continue to age and gradually decline.  The proposed rezoning would enable the district to replenish its building stock to respond to changing market demands. 

Just as important is how to address the transportation and public space needs of the area.  Even the modest increases in density projected from the rezoning will add to the congestion at Grand Central, on the subway and on sidewalks and intersections. Mayor Bloomberg’s commitment to provide upfront capital to improve the Lexington Avenue line and other needs will not only help mitigate increases in congestion, but will also address a longstanding transportation bottleneck – one that needs to be solved regardless of the rezoning.

Future mayors, the governor, legislators and the MTA will need to maintain a focus on improving transportation along the entire East Side beyond the actions specified in the proposed rezoning. These include the full buildout of the Second Avenue Subway and other priorities. It also must be acknowledged that new office construction in East Midtown will compete with locations elsewhere in the city.  But this competition should be minimal.  If the city’s forecasts are accurate, the rezoning will result in only 4.5 million square feet of net new space.

In addition, there is a differentiation among office districts that both mitigates the competition and is healthy for the city and the region.  Whether we create too much office space for one or two business cycles is less of a concern than whether we will have the flexibility to respond to demand over several decades. In summary, Regional Plan Association supports the proposed rezoning to help ensure New York's continued competitiveness.  The transit network and public spaces will benefit from the funds generated by the action, but will require additional funding and attention in the years ahead.