A proposal to rezone a five-block area around Grand Central Terminal is on balance a good deal for New York City, with the potential to encourage the development of needed commercial space while also generating funding to make sorely needed improvements to transit connections and nearby public infrastructure.
The rezoning would bring needed modern office space to one of the most transit-accessible locations in the world, Chris Jones, RPA’s vice president for research, testified before a hearing of community boards 5 and 6 on Nov. 17. Developer SL Green has proposed building a 1,400- foot skyscraper at One Vanderbilt Avenue, adjacent to Grand Central. In exchange for the increase in height and density at the site, SL Green would fund an estimated $210 million in improvements in pedestrian circulation within Grand Central and its vicinity, including new subway entrances and platform space for travelers on the 4, 5 and 6 subway line. These steps would enhance the experience of subway and commuter rail passengers and underpin the future development of East Midtown.
In particular, the improvements would address a shortcoming of the East Side Access project, which will link the LIRR to Grand Central beginning in 2023. 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.
The rezoning proposal isn’t perfect. One flaw is a plan to install traditional subway sidewalk entrances in front of the former Mobil building on 42nd Street. This continues a trend of increasing, rather than decreasing, subway entrances that impede pedestrian traffic on crowded streets. RPA recommends redesigning these entrances to move them into the building, with clear signs showing access to the subway.
It also will be important to fix unaddressed circulation problems at Grand Central that will be exacerbated by new traffic from the #7 line once the 34th Street station opens next year and the Far West Side develops. Future planning and development for East Midtown in the coming years will need to grapple with these issues.