East Midtown Rezoning - Testimony on Vanderbilt Corridor

Testimony by Chris Jones, vice president for research at Regional Plan Association

Tri-Board Task Force on East Midtown and Community Boards Five and Six Public Hearing, November 17, 2014

The proposed amendment will facilitate commercial development along Madison and Vanderbilt avenues in Manhattan, improve pedestrian circulation within Grand Central Terminal and its vicinity, and allow greater opportunity for area landmarks to transfer their unused development rights. 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. It would bring needed modern office space to one of the most transit accessible locations in the world. More importantly, improved transit connections and circulation would greatly enhance the experience of subway and commuter rail passengers and address a critical impediment to the future development of East Midtown.

The investments 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 stairways on the platforms. These should improve circulation enough to allow the MTA to add an additional train during rush hour, which would alleviate some overcrowding on the both the platforms and trains.

By creating a new exit for the new Long Island Rail Road terminal being built below the subway and Metro-North platforms, the project will address a shortcoming of the East Side Access project. As currently designed, it will take LIRR passengers up to 10 minutes to reach the street from the train level, cutting into the time savings that riders destined for East Midtown would achieve by going to Grand Central instead of Penn Station. By creating a new exit that will bypass crowded train platforms and the food court, many passengers will be able to reach the street more quickly and easily. It is important that this improvement be made prior to the completion of East Side Access, now estimated for 2023.

We regret that the plan calls for traditional subway sidewalk entrances in front of the Mobil building on 42nd Street. This continues a disappointing trend of increasing, rather than decreasing, subway entrances that impede pedestrian flows on crowded streets. We urge that these entrances be redesigned to move them into the building with clear signs showing access to the subway.

We also note that these investments won’t fix all 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, and other future developments in East Midtown should address these priorities.

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 aren’t met. For these reasons, Regional Plan Association supports the proposed text and map amendments. We would be happy to answer questions or provide further information on request.