Feb
05

Tying Midtown East rezoning into transit improvements

By

For six months toward the end of 2011 and into 2012, my offices were located a short walk away from Grand Central, and every day, I took the subway through this den of people. The Grand Central subway station on the Lexington Avenue IRT is not particularly well designed. It’s crammed with subway riders, and due to the numerous staircases, there’s not a lot of platform space. Between the crowds slowly trudging up the stairs and people waiting for trains, it can often seem unsafely overcrowded.

It may get even worse. With Mayor Bloomberg attempting to fast-track a plan to rezone Midtown East, the area around Grand Central could see a rapid expansion in the amount of available office space. Already, sidewalks are too narrow and pedestrian areas very limited. But nothing is quite as bad as that Grand Central subway space, and if the city is to rezone the neighborhood, it must be careful attention to the needs of the area’s subway riders.

In a January Community Board 5 meeting, the city presented its latest plans for Midtown East, and as the DNA Info write-up noted, these plans include a call for transit investment. Matthew Katz reports:

City planners unveiled a revised East Midtown rezoning plan Tuesday that excludes a small segment of streets from the proposal and requires developers to chip in to a fund for transit improvements — before they can get a building permit…

Developers also would have to pay into the District Improvement Fund before getting building permits — instead of when they received the permits, city officials said. Critics said that’s still no guarantee the cash needed to improve the area would be raised, or that enough developers will even decide to bite. “We don’t know when development is going to occur and we need these improvements now,” [CB 5 Board member Raju] Mann said.

The improvements eyed include new escalators, stairs, passageways and space on platforms at some of Midtown’s most congested subway stations. The upgrades, estimated to cost between $340 million and $465 million, would focus on the train lines at Grand Central, the Fifth Avenue/53rd Street Station and Lexington Avenue/53rd Street Station.

Full plans for these stations haven’t been released, but we do know, for instance, that the MTA wants to reconfigure how people use Grand Central. As an example, the MTA sees transfer times of about 125 seconds for those traveling between the 7 line and the Lexington Ave. trains when that time should be closer to 45 seconds. More stairs and a wider mezzanine at Grand Central are on the agenda.

But what happens if the MTA doesn’t see these changes realized? That’s the headline of the day as officials told CB5 members back in October that if the re-zoning goes through without transit improvements, the MTA may have to consider temporary station closures during crush load times. Similar practices are at play throughout the world. Essentially, as The Post’s David Seifman noted, the MTA would consider closing some entrances at certain hours of the day to better control for people flow.

The MTA made clear that this is a less-than-ideal long-term solution. “There is zero risk that we will have to start closing entrances tomorrow or anything like that,” agency spokesman Adam Lisberg said The Post. Still, the MTA would need political support and a significant monetary investment to see these changes realized.

While the funds needed are likely to be included in one of the next five-year capital plans, it is an open question of how long the MTA can wait. Council member Dan Garodnik said, “There are infrastructure needs that we have today — even putting aside adding four million square feet of new commercial development and 8,000 people who are anticipated coming into Grand Central for the first time.” Essentially, then, any rezoning must pay special attention to the transit needs. Not doing so could lead to calamitous overcrowding and very frustrated subway riders.



Categories : Manhattan

75 Responses to “Tying Midtown East rezoning into transit improvements”

  1. marv says:

    On the #7 train, at Grand Central adding side platforms (keeping the center platforms) would greatly enhance the station. Dual platform operation should operate durring rush hours. If possible, doors on one side should be operated remotely by a station manager.

    In the long term, why has there never been any discussion of extending the Grand Central to Time Square shuttle (aside from the rejected tie in to the steinway tubes)?. At times square it would require having the 7th ave IRT dip below the shuttle grade (expensive) but east of Grand Central is easier. The options there would include (and 4 tracks could allow multiple branches):

    *south through the east village to downtown
    *north along York Ave serving the Hospital in the high 60′s and then along the Harlem River Drive to or over the GWB
    *North to and over the Queensboro/59th Street/Koch Bridge possibly as a train to LGA (and beyond) and/or in some fashion to the Rockaway Beach Branch to JFK and/or the rockaways.

    If a west of times square option (despite the cost of lowering the 7th Ave tracks)is considered, it would allow for a 4 track line to NJ with stations at both Times Square and Grand Central. Linking to a new (4 track) Hudson tunnel could provide better utility than a Gate mega project and not require a new massive underground terminal. In NJ they would have to evaluate which line(s) could give up traditional commuter and freight rail services and have their platforms widened (loading guage narrowed) to become part of an enhance NYC subway system. (The secaucus or hoboken tranfer to such a line would provide great east side connectivity to much of NJ and allow many NJT trains to terminate west of the Hudson thus taking pressure off of NY Penn Station.)

    Getting an FRA waiver could allow all 4 tracks of a new hudson tunnel to be used by the IRT service through times square to grand central and beyond (allowing maximum commuter utility) durring rush hours while at other times allowing 2 of tracks to to connect into Penn Station thus giving 4 commuter rail tracks from Newark through Sunnyside. This would allow for maximal amtrak flexibility and not clog things up when needed periodic track work is needed.

    • Someone says:

      it would allow for a 4 track line to NJ with stations at both Times Square and Grand Central.

      Can’t you do that with the Flushing Line extension? You can build 2 express tracks under the existing construction and have the only stops in Manhattan be Times Square and Grand Central.

      On the #7 train, at Grand Central adding side platforms (keeping the center platforms) would greatly enhance the station. Dual platform operation should operate durring rush hours.

      Spanish Solution doesn’t work on newer NYC subway cars anymore.

    • Berk32 says:

      (1) Adding side platforms? Yikes – how do you they’re going to accomplish that? Also – ignoring the crazy cost this would require (if it were possible at all) – this would in fact slow down service, not improve anything (trains would take longer to leave). Anyway, the 4/5/6 is where the crowding problem is primarily – not the 7 platform.

      (2) Extending the shuttle? Why? They’re already extending the 7 train. You really do have a crazy imagination for fantasy subway lines… costs be damned.

    • Bolwerk says:

      What does any of this even solve? I suppose the 7 platforms in Manhattan might be a little crowded sometimes, but the 7 itself isn’t at capacity in Manhattan. If it has any problems, they’re in Queens.

      If we want to talk about quad-tracks, talk about doing it with future SAS segments south of 63rd – one pair can veer off into Queens, and another can head north to the two-track segment we’re already building.

    • Hank says:

      At both sides of the shuttle, the tracks are at the same grade of the exiting IRT. The shuttle was the route of the original line; it turned west at GCT, then north at Times Square. So extending it at either end would be an engineering nightmare, as well as expensive.

  2. John-2 says:

    The best thing the MTA could do to help with Grand Central crowding would be to build a new entrance/exit for the Flushing Line on the east side of Lexington Avenue. As it stands right now, all Flushing Line passengers exiting or accessing the middle and west ends of the platform have to co-mingle with passengers from the 4/5/6 trains, either via the ramp that leads to the Lex platforms or the escalators that end up on the Lex’s mezzanine. Filling in the big gap between those access points and the 7′s east exit near Third Avenue would allow people working in offices in the immediate area east of Grand Central to access Flushing trains without having to go through Grand Central or dodge passengers heading to and from the Lex trains.

    As for the Lex platform itself, because it’s on the diagonal between the curves at Park and Lex, and basically under the Grand Hyatt, there’s only so much space to work with. It might be possible to put a corridor off Lexington Avenue around 44th-45th streets to allow people to access the north end of the station without having to enter the terminal, which figures to be crush-loaded even more after ESA opens.

  3. Todd says:

    Would closed entrances still allow exiting the station?

  4. Someone says:

    The MTA should finish building the lower level platforms in Grand Central on the Lex Ave line, so that more trains could pass through Grand Central during rush hours. Also, there would be less crowding on platforms, even if the number of people working in the area increases (there would be 8 tracks, as opposed to the current 4.)

    • VLM says:

      Finish? They would have to start first, and that’s not happening any time soon/ever.

      • Someone says:

        They did start, but it was never completed.

        • VLM says:

          I’ve learned over the last few weeks here that facts, to you, are inconvenient and malleable, but you’re wrong here. They never started. There were some vague plans sixty years ago that never turned into anything. The only spot on the Lex line where they planned and buit a lower level station was at 59th St. where the tracks already existed but the station cavern did not.

    • Berk32 says:

      There are no unfinished lower level tracks or platforms at grand central on the lax ave line.

      Absolutely nothing.

      No clue what you may be confusing this with.

      • Someone says:

        The space exists, which is what I am saying. I am not saying that the tracks or platforms existed, nor did I ever say that.

        • VLM says:

          When someone says, as you did, that the MTA “should finish building the lower level platforms,” that strongly implies that they started building. They never did. You’re not going to see a lower level GCT IRT platform, and if you don’t understand why, it’s pointless for me to waste my time explaining it to you.

          • Someone says:

            Okay.

            “They should start building the lower level of the Lexington Avenue Line platforms…”

            • Berk32 says:

              if they were to use that area as another mezzanine for people transferring between the 4/5/6 and the 7 – then maybe it would be useful.

              Another 4 tracks? what does that accomplish? Does it improve service? where do those people go?

              • Someone says:

                It increases train and passenger capacity.

                It could also serve as a terminal for some rush hour trains from the Bronx and Brooklyn.

                • SEAN says:

                  How do you propose this get done. Also where do out of service trains get layed up.

                  • Someone says:

                    Out-of-service trains get laid up at that lower level. There’s already space for that level’s construction.

                    • al says:

                      Reconsider that point. The area is stacked underground. At the bottom is the 7 train. Above that are the East Side Access caverns. Above those caverns are the IRT Grand Central platforms (and Metro North GCT loop tracks to North). Then there is the Mezzanine and Grand Central shuttle above that.

                      http://upload.wikimedia.org/wi.....y_1918.jpg

                    • Jason says:

                      Wanted to reply to Al, but it won’t let me….That link to the old diagram is great! I always thought the old tunnels (with the exception to the local southbound connection) were all destroyed when the diagnal station was built. In theory, they could reconnect the shuttle to the lex to at least head downtown (provided they reconfigured the current mez that connects the shuttle to the lex).I think it would be awesome to have service that connected downtown on the east directly to timesquare.

                    • Berk32 says:

                      That diagram was from the proposed plans – this isnt what ended up being built and isnt the current tunnel conditions.

                    • John-2 says:

                      ESA’s below the 7 — from street level, it goes:

                      – 4/5/6 mezzanine & TS shuttle tracks at west end of complex;
                      – 4/5/6 platform, with the upper level GCT tracks to the north;
                      – Lower level GCT tracks and loop track;
                      – Flushing Line GC tracks and platform;
                      – ESA tunnels.

                    • Someone says:

                      ESA is below the 7 platforms, not the Lex Ave platforms.

                      The order from street level is (like John-2 said):

                      GCT
                      Mezz/TS tracks
                      Lex Ave platform
                      (Empty area)
                      Flushing line platform
                      ESA

                      There’s still space to build new platforms.

                      @al: Not everything in the diagram was actually carried out.

  5. lawhawk says:

    One of the biggest issues is that Gov. Cuomo, despite his claims to focus on rebuilding better after Sandy, isn’t exactly going out of his way to provide a steady source of revenue for the MTA. The next Mayor needs to focus on infrastructure in a way that the past few mayors haven’t (and yes, the Mayor doesn’t have control over the MTA, but he or she could produce priorities and get infrastructure projects done that enhance MTA efforts). Rezoning and patterns of development don’t happen in a vacuum.

    If anything, the possibility of platform closures due to overcrowding highlights the need to upgrade signal systems to allow higher capacity along the lines, as well as improving the efficiency of surface transit – SBS or other traffic measures that increase capacity of the street transit options.

    • Boris says:

      Bloomberg doesn’t have control over federal/state gas taxes or the NYS DOT either, but that hasn’t prevented him from supporting car-oriented development of megamalls, stadiums, and suburban residential enclaves in the outer boroughs. Control is in the eye of the beholder. Start up a dozen 7 line-style extensions, city-funded, and voila, you do have control of the MTA because you control how the money is spent.

      And even without megaprojects, simply doing joint land use-transportation planning (something the city has had trouble getting into, for some reason) would do wonders for coordinating transit and real estate development.

      • AG says:

        which stadium in the boroughs is not transit oriented??? As far as “start up a dozen 7 line-style extensions”…. how? there isn’t enough money for that… which is why they had to cancel the 41st and 10th station. the mayor knew it was important for the hudson yards development (and the javits)… but he couldn’t come up with more money. the only hope is just like they are doing with this midtown east rezoning – getting developers to put in for transit in order to get approval.

  6. Christopher says:

    Not just tying it together, paying for it. Ridiculous to have a plan for zoning increases that doesn’t include funding from said increases to pay for transit improvements. Why do these things have to operate so separately? “Build it and we’ll figure out the other stuff later” is a really crappy way to do things.

    • AG says:

      ummm – that’s what the plan is… the developers have to give up transit money for air-rights and approvals. smart developers know it’s in their best interest anyway. just like Related wants to make a deal for a land swap with BMCC to help pay for Moynihan station. Some balk – but Related knows that if they get the land swap – they’ll make more than enough money to pay for the station. Politicians who don’t understand that want to act tough – but they have no stream of funding themselves.

  7. LLQBTT says:

    What’s the big shmeal anyway? Just add another ‘surface subway’ aka +SBS+. That fixes everything, yes? (NOT!)

    • Bolwerk says:

      SBS is a bit silly, but something HBLR-like on the surface would be a huge and relatively cheap capacity injection.

      (Of course, every bus line that exists should be SBS-like insofar as possible, with the caveat that they get onboard TVMs.)

      • LLQBTT says:

        In Midtown especially on a dedicated crosstown and/or loop ROW. But the MTA is ‘allergic’ to light rail, isn’t it?

        • Bolwerk says:

          Beats me. I suspect it’s a patronage thing. When one operator can haul 3x as many passengers as an SBS vehicle, maybe it makes a lot of union labor redundant.

          The only other thing I can think of is NIH syndrome, but then SBS/BRT is imported too. They won’t consider LRT even when it makes far and away the most sense.

          • Someone says:

            What’s NIH?

            Incidentally, the MTA’s version of BRT, or “the slightly-quicker, but nonetheless slow version of limited-stop buses that is called SBS” is nowhere near being a real BRT system. Even LRT would be better than SBS.

            • Bolwerk says:

              NIH = not invented here

              I don’t see much wrong with SBS per se, except the fare collection is stupid. Fantasy “real BRT” isn’t much of an improvement over SBS, and is virtually never worth the cost. It’s just that the places where they put SBS should be LRT, mainly because the high usage warrants it.

              What the MTA calls SBS belongs in the hinterlands of eastern Queens or Staten Island, though in practice buses should generally follow SBS operating procedures insofar as possible.

              • Bolwerk says:

                I will say, and this surprised me a little, the SBS seems noticeably shittier since they took the flashing blue lights out.

  8. Larry Littlefield says:

    This rezoning is nothing compared the creation of virtually entire Midtown East office market and the eastern half of the Upper East Side as a high rise high income residential district after WWII.

    Of course the transit system had a plan to provide transporation to all those new office workers and residents. Does anybody recall what it was?

    Now they want to move some staircases. For $billions, most likely.

  9. SEAN says:

    You would think that the real estate lobby & construction industry would both be phoming at the mouth at such aplan & all they need to do is support the MTA by dropping a few bucks in the right hands.

  10. Bolwerk says:

    I’m not especially against more Midtown development, but they could consider rezoning huge portions of the city for taller construction and avoid crowding Midtown more, while putting the transit improvements in places where they’d be cheaper.

    • SEAN says:

      such as?

      • Someone says:

        The areas west of Flushing and around Downtown Brooklyn, for example.

        • AG says:

          LIC and Downtown Brooklyn were rezoned a good while ago for that purpose… millions of square feet of commercial space have been built (or converted from industrial) in those neighborhoods.

      • Bolwerk says:

        Ideally, anywhere and everywhere. No reason to not allow taller construction in most of the city. But at least places like Williamsburg and LIC have potential as job centers.

        • Think twice says:

          I always thought the area within a 5-minute walking radius around West 4th Street and Broadway-Lafayette stations should be zoned for more density. Especially West 4th Street station; with seven subway lines that fan out across the city and yet the only thing above it’s north entrance is a squat one-story building.

  11. Andrew Smith says:

    Perhaps this explains why Bloomberg is desperate for thinner New Yorkers.

    • AG says:

      well now that you mention it… that’s probably why in Japan and Korea people are able to pack tighter into trains….

      • Someone says:

        Well now that you mention it… they also have longer cars, articulated trains, and tighter schedules.

        • AG says:

          You didn’t get it… my response was to the comment about “thninner New Yorkers”…. as in Japanese are more thin… that had nothing to do with transit infrastructure.

  12. Eric F says:

    I wish that part of this rezoming included adding some park space to midtown east on the model of Bryant Park. A block or so of Class B and lower space can be demolished and a park installed. There’s still be a net increase in usable commercial space and the officeworkers wouldn’t have to spend 10-12 hours per day in a lightless canyon. One advantage lower Manhattan has over midtown is that the weird non-standard grid down there and years of real estate market doldrums have lent themselves to the creation of many small plaza and parks that allow for a humane respite from office tower monotony. Does nobody else see that?

    • Bolwerk says:

      That’s not a zoning issue. That’s an eminent domain issue.

      I don’t see the point. You can get the same amount of respite space, if not more at least taking Lower Manhattan as the model, from converting some street space to pedestrian plaza. Baruch College is doing that now. The best part? No property rights are violated.

    • Alon Levy says:

      Parks in the shadow of skyscrapers? What could possibly go wrong?

      • Eric F says:

        Every park in Manhattan is near skyscrapers, including Bryant Park. Most work pretty well. I guess I’m the only park advocate on this one.

        “You can get the same amount of respite space, if not more at least taking Lower Manhattan as the model, from converting some street space to pedestrian plaza.”

        Bryant Park has vendor markets, an ice skating rink and outdoor movies. Try doing that on a pedestrian plaza created by taking over a lane on Lexington Avenue. You can do your victory dance over Manhattan traffic all you want, but midtown east is missing a fairly simple amenity that is a mainstay of most office tower conglomerations.

        • Bolwerk says:

          I’m not especially opposed to a park, but condemning land for one seems a bit extreme given that demand seems limited given the condition of parks besides Bryant Park that are in the area. Not sure I agree with Alon’s complaint about skyscrapers either, but ped plazas in busy parts of Midtown are a pretty proven concept and…well, good for daytime business.

          And, I would think a side street would make more sense than an avenue. Maybe ice skating would be out of the question, but a block of street space can accommodate movies and vendors.

        • Alon Levy says:

          Bryant Park is very large, and the tallest skyscrapers are not to its south, which helps. (This is even truer of Union Square.) In contrast, in the urban renewal era the city built many smaller parks in Lower Manhattan that were in the shadow of skyscrapers, and they never were as nice.

          On top of that, Midtown East isn’t lacking for plaza space. It’s lacking for good plaza space. The UN Plaza has plenty of open space, but First Avenue is hard to cross on foot in the vicinity of the UN, and because of (presumably) security paranoia there’s no effort to get street vendors and such there.

          • Eric F says:

            The plazas tend to be relatively far east, and are mainly ugly.

            I believe what was Forsyth Christie park was a Moses-era project that was built out of tenements that were eminent domained to build the park.

          • Bolwerk says:

            Midtown has wider streets. Most of them get bathed in sunlight most of the day for most of the year, even the ones with skyscrapers. Bonus: Manhattanhenge happens in the late spring and early/mid summer, the arguably best time for outdoor R&R.

            If a space is for respite, I’d actually exploit the built environment. An airy demolished block would suffer greatly from ambient traffic noise, a problem even Bryant Park has. A block-long ped plaza on a reclaimed street would actually be buffered by the existing buildings along the street.

            If the space is supposed to be recreational, maybe it’s a different story, but that’s a much harder sell in that area of the city anyway.

          • AG says:

            The UN actually just made a swap with the city that will allow the city to extend the “greenway” along the East River further uptown.

      • Bruce M says:

        Ever been to Rockefeller Plaza?

  13. g says:

    I suppose my question would be why didn’t the MTA prioritize this as a capital project way before given the inevitable impact opening the ESA will have on Grand Central subway complex. Overcrowding here isn’t exactly a new phenomenon either.

    • Eric F says:

      ESA has provisions for additional exits from GCT. Those exits, I think, are direct from the commuter rail access points and not from the subway system.

      As for handling additional loads, I would think that the second avenue subway will relieve some of the 4/5/6 load on trains passing through GCT. Given that ESA is being delayed into oblivion, phase one of the second avenue subway should be in place ahead of ESA.

      • marv says:

        once sas is completed, a direct transfer between the 63rd/lex station and the 59/60 lexingon ave station becomes even more needed. Such a transfer should include moving sidewalks and would be enhanced by shifting the IRT station north on one or both of the levels.

        Such a connection would allow easy (weather proof or even climate controlled) transfer between the Lexington Ave local and express, the Broadway BMT, the 6th Ave/Queens IND and the 2nd avenue line.

      • Someone says:

        Yeah, but the first phase of the Second Avenue Subway won’t relieve any crowding south of 59 Street or north of 96 Street. And like g says, crowding on the Lex Ave line and the need for extre exits aren’t exactly new phenomena, either.

        • marv says:

          “Yeah, but the first phase of the Second Avenue Subway won’t relieve any crowding south of 59 Street or north of 96 Street”

          in fact it will relieve some crowding south of 59th street as people using the the 2nd ave subway will be shifted over to broadway and will use that route to go down town. Previously many/most would have stayed on the Lex IRT and transfered at 14th Street if at all.

          • Someone says:

            in fact it will relieve some crowding south of 59th street as people using the the 2nd ave subway will be shifted over to broadway and will use that route to go down town.”

            The Broadway Line is still several blocks away from the Lex Ave line between 14 Street and 59 Street, so crowding on the trains running between those Lex Ave stations would still not be alleviated. The Grand Central Station is one of those “in-between” stations.

        • AG says:

          as others said there will be some shift from the SAS… but also – not as many Metro North riders will be going to Grand Central either because Metro North is supposed to take the space at Penn that will be freed up from LIRR trains going to the east side. But yeah – full release won’t come until the SAS is at least Phase 2 or 3 are done.

      • John-2 says:

        What the GC area needs is additional subway access points not inside Grand Central Terminal — you want to keep the people headed to/from the subway and area buildings from having to mix with the commuter rail passengers, and you want if possible to allow 4/5/6 riders and 7 passengers to have their own entrances in the area that do not force them to share entrances. That’s why a new entrance to the 7 on the east side of Lexington Avenue and access to the 4/5/6 from Lex around 44th Street would make sense, because it gets people into the subway without forcing them to go inside the train station.

  14. BruceM says:

    Should the SAS project ever continue south of 63rd St., are there any plans at 42nd St. to connect to the 7 train? The eastern end of that platform is close to 3rd Ave. Could a pedestrian tunnel be built to 2nd Ave?

  15. Sara Nordmann says:

    I, too, saw this presentation made by the MTA at a ULI meeting. I couldn’t help but wonder if these palliative measures would go the way of road widening to ease congestion–the stairs will rapidly be crowded again by commuters that hear that changes were made, and the average LOS (level of service) will remain dismal. I imagine there’s a self-leveling point where people will just avoid the station; no one is going to line up for blocks to get onto the platform. (Am I crazy?)

    • Someone says:

      In Japan, people line up for literally hundreds of feet for their train at some stations. Same thing will happen to NYCS.

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