Testimony on Vanderbilt Corridor - City Planning Hearing

Testimony by Pierina Ana Sanchez, Associate for Policy and Planning at Regional Plan Association

New York City Planning Commission Hearing on Vanderbilt Corridor and One Vanderbilt Draft Environmental Impact Statement, Amendment ULURP No. 150130(A), February 4, 2015

Good morning, my name is Pierina Ana Sanchez and I am an associate for policy and planning 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.

RPA is in support of the draft EIS and amendment under consideration. The proposed zoning text amendment and city map change 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 stairs on the platforms. These should improve circulation enough to allow the MTA to add an additional train during rush hour, helping relieve overcrowding on the trains as well.

By creating an 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 several 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 hope that the project can be further improved by moving the subway sidewalk entrances in front of the Mobil building on Third Avenue to the building itself. Doing so would build on other zoning changes that have created incentives for off-sidewalk entrances in other busy districts – such as Times Square. Attention must also be paid to the issue of barriers to walking at the site. In particular, newsstands that are removed for the construction period should not be put back where they block the free flow of pedestrian traffic, notably at the northwest corner at Vanderbilt and 42nd Street.  

We also 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 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 are not met.

For these reasons, Regional Plan Association supports the proposed text and map amendments, and we would be happy to answer any questions or provide further information on request.