Testimony on Greater East Midtown Rezoning

The testimony below was delivered by RPA New York Director Pierina Ana Sanchez on April 26, 2017 before the New York CIty Planning Commission, regarding the Greater East MIdtown Rezoning (ULURP Application Nos. N 170186A ZRM and N 170187 ZMM)

Good morning, my name is Pierina Ana Sanchez and I am the New York Director at Regional Plan Association, which aims to improve the New York metropolitan region’s economic health, environmental sustainability and quality of life through research, planning and advocacy.

I am here today to testify in support of the proposed rezoning for Greater East Midtown, the city’s premier central business district. East Midtown fuels the economy of the city and region, and is one of the greatest generators of prosperity in the country. But the district faces a number of challenges – East Midtown has an aging and increasingly outdated office building stock, limited new construction, and a severe need for improvements to public spaces, pedestrian networks and transit amenities. As long-term, regional planners, we are concerned about the 25 and 50 year horizon. As the Commission decides the future of the district’s land use, RPA urges consideration of a vital question: are the public’s needs being met in this proposal?

As a member of the Steering Committee, RPA helped to shape the recommendations that set the foundation for the City’s proposals for the Greater East Midtown Rezoning. Thanks to Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Council Member Dan Garodnick, for your leadership, where the proposal stands today represents a significant achievement. As a world-class city, the question is less whether East Midtown remains at the forefront relative to other NYC or even U.S. business districts, but how we compete with London, Paris, Shanhaii and Tokyo. To remain a leader, East Midtown must stay globally competitive, which requires a truly ambitious vision. We commend the hard work that has been put into this effort, and have a few outstanding concerns and recommendations:

  • The place-making incentives for the public and private realm: As we have previously stated, there is room for more aspirational improvements to meet the district’s challenges than what is currently in DOT’s proposed concept plan. There could be more preference for people, room for bikes, and preference for transit.  We are also concerned the concept plan itself has no teeth – improvements are not guaranteed. Finally, we are doubtful of the potential for success of the privately owned public space (POPs) bonuses, and recommend an as-of-right framework be identified.
  • Transit improvements: Given the critical role of the district, RPA supports the proposed boundaries and even eastward considerations. And, with respect to transit improvements, recognizing the critical nature of ADA accessibility, how can more flexibility be added for consideration of more aspirational transit improvements in the future? 
  • Limiting residential conversions: East Midtown is a commercial district first and foremost, conversions should be limited and dis-incentivized.
  • Public realm improvement fund governance: Control should be balanced between mayoral appointees and other representatives.

Our written testimony is more comprehensive and I will not read it out today. Thank you for your time this morning, I would be happy to answer any questions.

More detailed RPA concerns below:

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. 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 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

Leave room for improvements and density considerations near future stations, including 2nd Avenue: 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. 

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. 

Place-making

Codify pre-approved place-making opportunities documented by DOT: 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 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.   

Public realm improvements achievable through as-of-right framework: Finally, RPA is dubious about the success of the NYC Planning’s privately owned public space bonuses. With ULURP requirement, will it really be successful? 

Limiting Residential Conversions

Limit 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 agrees with these provisions, and furthermore recommends that any additional residential should be mixed-income, applying the same provisions that apply to new rezonings under the city’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing provisions. For grandfathered buildings that are currently permitted as-of-right conversion to residential, we recommend that owners be required to demonstrate, through a special permit or other mechanism, that commercial use is not economically viable.

Decision-Making for the Public Realm Improvement Fund

Decision-making should be distributed across the Mayor’s representatives, Manhattan Borough President, City Council Member and Community Boards. 20 percent of the sales landmark development rights will go to a public realm improvement fund managed by a governing group consisting of appointees from the Mayor’s office, local elected officials, and community boards. 

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 the transit system which is the lifeblood of our city and region. Our transit system 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 remains among our highest priorities. As we look to the future, we have a responsibility to ensure the district’s global competitiveness, which will require ambitious reimagining of the resident, worker and visitor experience.