Testimony on Greater East Midtown Rezoning

RPA's New York Director presented the following testimony on Monday February 6, 2017 before New York City Manhattan Community Board 6 Committee on Land Use and Waterfront, on the Greater East Midtown Rezoning (CEQR NO. 17DCP001M)

By almost any measure – jobs, office space, salaries, and rents – East Midtown has few rivals around the globe. As the city’s premier central business district, it fuels the economy of the city and region and is one of the greatest generators of prosperity in the country. But the district is facing a number of challenges -- an aging and increasingly outdated office building stock, limited new construction, and a need for improvements to the public spaces, pedestrian networks and transit amenities that allow for a positive experience in the district.

The East Midtown Steering Committee recommended an innovative rezoning framework that would allow as- of-right, higher density and thus incentivize modern office development in locations with proximity to transit, and/or extra air and light as a result of a number of factors, including frontage on wide street or avenue. The as-of-right density should be earned however, through upgrades to the transportation network and public realm, or through contribution to the preservation of important local historic resources. These recommendations reflect an intensive consensus building process.

As a member of the Steering Committee, RPA helped to shape the recommendations that set the foundation for the City’s draft scope of work for the Greater East Midtown Rezoning. We believe the hard work of the Steering Committee, the hard work of Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Council Member Dan Garodnick, should serve as the guide for the rezoning. We commend the hard work the City has put into the future of East Midtown and we have the following concerns and recommendations: 

Transit Bonuses 

More aspirational pre-approved transit improvements: As part of the as-of-right framework, pre-identified improvements will be assigned a specific amount of floor area based on their scope and benefit to the public. Developments taking advantage of this zoning framework should contribute to transit network improvements, above and beyond the State of Good Repair (SOGR), Normal Replacement (NR), System Improvement (SI) and Network Expansion (NE) work usually carried out through the MTA’s capital program. Upon cursory review of MTA’s preliminary improvements list, RPA recommends MTA provide more information on how they made their selections.

Additionally, the City and MTA should consider how the district can achieve more aspirational improvements including: 

  • MTA and City should consider how to upgrade relevant East Midtown bus routes as redesigned roadways, involving greater preference for transit and more space for people. 
  • The City should consider improvements to add safety and convenience to the bike and pedestrian network. Right now, there are no bike network improvements included in this plan.
  • MTA, City, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey should explore airport access from East Midtown to the area’s airports 

Build flexibility into the pre-approved transit improvements list: We also strongly recommend flexibility be built into the concept plan, such that as needs change at GEM district transit stations, pre-approved projects can be amended.

The valuation of floor area should also be able to change over time. The public should receive fair benefits for the additional development rights, and this information should be made publicly available for each transaction.

Special permit through certification not ULURP: Given how scarcely the transportation special permit has been used in the past 30 years, 10 times since 1982, RPA is not confident the transit improvement special permit mechanism will yield many benefits. Per the steering committee’s recommendations, the transit bonus in the GEM special district should be restructured so as to maximize the opportunity for approvals through certification by DCP and MTA, as opposed to through the Uniform Land Use Review procedure (ULURP). Otherwise, RPA recommends greater preference be given to transit improvements over landmark transfers. 

Boundaries

Expand Grand Central Terminal (GCT) Transit Improvement Zone (TIZ) to 49th Street: Part of the proposal’s planning rationale for allowing additional density in certain areas is related an area’s proximity to transit nodes. These areas are the blocks or portions of blocks directly above GCT’s below-grade network, and the blocks or portions of blocks directly below Fifth Avenue-53 Street, Lexington Avenue-51st/53rd Street. We recommend the GCT TIZ be extended two-blocks north to 49th Street, from 47th Street. This would enable more of the developments with holdings directly over transit stations to “earn” FAR through implementation of pre- identified transit improvements. This is especially important since only developments within TIZ’s will be eligible to earn FAR through direct transit improvements.

Leave room for improvements and density considerations near future stations: After almost a century of stops and starts, the first segment of the Second Avenue subway – between 63rd to 96th Street – is nearing completion. The first phase alone will divert 200,000 riders from the Lexington Avenue subway lines. In all, the public will invest upwards of $20 billion on the second avenue subway and its stations. Because of the immense amount of public resources new rail transit represents, RPA recommends the zoning framework include language about future stations that will serve the district.

Place-making Bonuses

Codify pre-approved place-making opportunities documented by DOT, enable more aspirational ideas: With respect to place-making opportunities, RPA is concerned both that the concept plan will not be implemented, and that even if it is, there is room for more aspirational improvements to meet the district’s challenges. The concept plan that may be pre-approved through ULURP should use the Steering Committee’s recommendations as a foundation, and borrow more ideas from four foundational reports including the Grand Central Partnership’s 1987 revival plan, Jonathan Rose Companies’ “Places for People: A Public Realm Vision Plan for East Midtown,” commissioned by DCP and EDC in 2013, the Municipal Art Society’s 2013 Vision, and

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the multi-board task force’s 2013 statement. Ideas contained in these documents date back 40 years and have support from key stakeholders. In particular, RPA strongly recommends:

  • The advancement of NYC DOT public plaza and shared streets recommendations, including plazas at Pershing Square West, the northern section of Vanderbilt Ave, a shared street along Library Way, and additional pedestrian space along Vanderbilt Ave.

  • The EIS should evaluate these options and more, and detail the potential safety, public health and cultural benefits of additional public space in this overcrowded district.

Finally, RPA is dubious about the success of the NYC Planning’s new privately owned public space bonuses.. With ULURP requirement, will it really be successful?

Residential Conversions & Affordable Housing

Require special permit for residential conversions, and require affordable housing in any residential development enabled: East Midtown is first and foremost a business district and to that end, RPA recommends residential uses be discouraged. In order to utilize the zoning framework proposed in this rezoning, the City’s proposal requires that development have clear frontage along a wide street, exceed environmental performance standards, and that residential floor area be no more than 20 percent of the development. RPA applauds this last provision, and furthermore recommends that if this rezoning will encourage additional residential capacity, either by design or as a side-effect, two conditions apply: residential conversions must be approved through special permit and any additional residential should be mixed-income.

Governing Body

Expand governing body membership: A percentage of landmark transfer of development rights transfers will go to an improvement fund managed by a governing group consisting of appointees from the Mayor’s office, local elected officials, and community boards. RPA recommends the governing body also include membership from the independent civic organizations that comprised the steering committee.

Conclusion

At RPA, we pay special attention to the infrastructure systems that make this concentration of activity possible, including the housing that is home to 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.

With an estimated 2 million new jobs destined for the region over the next twenty-five years, we will need to rethink space for commerce throughout. The rezoning of Greater East Midtown and redevelopment it will come together with new capacity in the Far West Side, Lower Manhattan, downtown Brooklyn and Queens secure and safeguard the future of this district. It is our responsibility to future generations, who will benefit from the decisions we make today.