For some reason or another, the concept of transit-oriented development seems to rankle nerves and raise eyebrows. Outside of the city, at least, in suburban areas where “density” is a bad word, issues surrounding class and race often lead to intense debates over TOD. But within New York City, it’s a fact of life. In fact, the city is one giant transit-oriented development, made possible because of the reach and frequency of our transit network.
After so many decades and years of development, it’s easy to lose sight of how transit has spurred development — both residential and commercial — in New York City, but a new spate of projects serves to remind us of New York’s origins and showcases its future growth. As Grand Central Terminal turns 100 this year, a big dig underneath it will soon usher in over 80,000 new commuters per day to the area, and across town at 34th St. and 11th Ave., a new subway stop will deliver New Yorkers to one of Manhattan’s last truly undeveloped frontiers at the Hudson Yards.
In this week’s Crain’s New York, a big story on Grand Central drives home this point. Daniel Geiger looked at the planned and expected growth around Midtown that stems out of Grand Central and its importance to the city. Opening with the story about the owners of 140 E. 45th St. building out a real entrance that leads to Grand Central on East 44th St., Geiger’s piece highlights the up-building that will soon happen throughout Midtown.
Rockwood’s move is just one of many by which countless landlords and tenants alike are demonstrating that even at the ripe old age of 100, the grand dame of New York’s transit hubs is more central and vital than ever. What’s more, with the planned arrival by 2020 of Long Island Rail Road trains in Grand Central’s sub-basement and the expected rezoning of the surrounding neighborhood to spur development of a whole new generation of bigger, smarter office buildings, the terminal is destined to become only more important.
“When the LIRR link opens, it will bring about 80,000 new commuters per day through the terminal,” said an MTA spokeswoman. Those new faces will add to the roughly 800,000 people—including tourists and, increasingly, shoppers—who will pass through the building each day by the end of the decade.
Similarly, the extension of the 7 subway line—which runs beneath the station out to Manhattan’s newest neighborhood, Hudson Yards, just beginning to rise west of Penn Station—will further knit the terminal into the city’s future growth. In a sort of virtuous circle, it is those beefier transportation links that effectively lay the groundwork for the big new towers, which are expected to add 10 million square feet or more of additional space in the coming decades—the equivalent of more than three Empire State Buildings—and their tens of thousands of additional tenants. They could begin arriving as soon as 2020.
In addition to the increase in office space in the area, the New York City Planning Commission with some prodding by the Regional Plan Association and Municipal Art Society will reassess how the space surrounding Grand Central is utilized as well. Parts of Vanderbilt Ave. may be turned into pedestrian plazas, and the city will consider widening sidewalks along Madison and Lexington Avenues. As midtown occupancy numbers increase, wider sidewalks will become a matter of safety for the tens of thousands of new workers in the area.
So Grand Central — the epicenter of Midtown East — continues to deliver transit-oriented development benefits a century after it first opened its doors. I can’t help but to draw comparisons to the way the city and its politicians treat transit today. It is so clearly the economic driver of the city. People clamor to live near subway stops, and rents increase as commute times decrease. Businesses want to be located closer to train stations, and an increase in commuting capacity is driving a push to rezone Midtown and add density to one of the denser areas in the country.
Still, when it comes to political priorities, transit takes second fiddle to just about anything else. It is a struggle to move rail projects forward, and future funding is up in the air. We look for tiny incremental improvements rather than transformative initiatives that could easily see the light of day with a political champion and some progressive funding. Let the Grand Central Terminal be a reminder of what transit development in New York City can do and what it still does. It’s a powerful driver indeed.