Home Manhattan Stringer conditions Midtown East rezoning on transit upgrades

Stringer conditions Midtown East rezoning on transit upgrades

by Benjamin Kabak

Some new staircases and an enlarged mezzanine area won’t cut it.

As Mayor Bloomberg’s tenure rushes to an end, his effort to rezone Midtown East is coming to a head as well. Bloomberg wants to see this project through before he leaves office, and while many stakeholders are objecting to the relative breakneck pace of a project that has to go through a mandated review process, the rezoning is moving forward. Last week, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer gave the Midtown East his OK, conditioned on promises from the Bloomberg Administration to fund transit improvements. It’s a start, but is it enough?

“In order to make East Midtown’s plan a success, greater density in East Midtown should follow significant investments in its infrastructure,” Stringer said in his report. Expanding density before preparing the transit infrastructure, he says, “will have undesirable consequences for the City as a whole, [and] the ramifications of adding density to the already overloaded capacity of the local transit infrastructure raises serious questions about a development-first approach.”

Stringer’s ULURP review and the subsequent report focused largely on the impact the rezoning would have on the transit infrastructure currently in place. As regular riders of the Lexington Ave. IRT know, the Grand Central station is ill-equipped to handle more passengers. The trains themselves are packed, and the station — without much platform space or a large mezzanine area — can feel dangerously cramped at times. East Side Access will bring more riders into the area, and the rezoning would boost ridership on the line by well over 100 percent.

So what do you do with 15,000 new workers who will fill up 3.8 million square feet of office space and a few hundred thousand more square feet devoted to retail and hotels? In February, the MTA presented their mitigation plans, and Stringer grants his approval for the project as long as these plans are implemented first. These plans include new stairways — which eliminate some platform space — an enlarged mezzanine, new exits and an additional train per hour for the Lexington Ave. line. The 7 line would enjoy a few new staircases and high-speed escalators as well, and additional mitigation plans are being developed.

To fund all of this, Stringer calls upon the city to move towards what he calls comprehensive planning. “The City should advance proactive funding mechanisms, which could include, but are not limited to, direct capital investment, bond financing, or a special tax assessment district,” his report says. “Such funding mechanisms can provide capital dollars today that could be paid back by the proposed source (i.e. the DIB) over time.”

Now, this is all well and good, and Stringer is right to worry about the impact on transit such a rezoning would have. The system at Grand Central cannot handle many more people without some serious expansion efforts, but I worry that the proposed mitigation efforts aren’t enough. Incremental improvement is fine, but sweeping change may be in order. Plus, the rezoning isn’t the only project that will impact the area as two new East River high rises are going up in the East 30s.

The solution should be an increased focus on Phases 3 and 4 of the Second Ave. Subway. Now, I realize the MTA has only just started thinking about Phase 2, but as these Midtown East rezoning efforts move forward, Phases 3 and 4 are becoming even more important. This southern extension can siphon riders off of the Lexington Ave. line and to the new office space that will be developed. Additionally, bringing the subway south into an area with new office space could gain the approval of the Dan Doctoroffs of the city who would no longer view the subway line as a “silly spur that doesn’t generate anything.” It would generate relief for the Lexington Ave. line and could be a key selling point for new development in a rezoned area.

Ultimately, the rezoning will move forward, and without a champion, these phases of the Second Ave. Subway won’t for now. But they could be the key to the entire project, and Stringer’s report, while omitting reference to these phases, nearly says as much. “While the proposed rezoning targets development, any additional density onto a system that is over capacity will inevitably lead to potentially dangerous conditions,” he said. “It is therefore critical that the City mitigate the existing overcrowding conditions and create a real plan for investment in the East Side’s transportation infrastructure, including improving conditions at Grand Central.”

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Kvnbklyn August 5, 2013 - 7:33 am

Grand Central’s 4/5/6 platforms could also be widened by building a new local track on either side and filling in the current local track with more platform. Expensive and logistically difficult, but feasible.

Or, how about extending two of the new LIRR tracks to Lower Manhattan and onward to connect with the LIRR at Atlantic Terminal? This would greatly relieve pressure on the Lex, finally bringing commuter rail downtown. Considering New Haven trains could also use such a connection, this would connect the financial industry of Connecticut with Wall Street. And allow the extra capacity on the LIRR to be put to use by serving Brooklyn and Queens through fare integration. This would be as expensive as SAS phases 3&4, but with a much larger impact.

Bolwerk August 5, 2013 - 8:45 am

That sounds much more expensive than phases 3 & 4 with little impact.

SEAN August 5, 2013 - 9:45 am

Some more details please,.

It’s the right time to start planning for extentions to the SAS & future transit services, as the upzoning idea starts gaining traction.

Karm August 5, 2013 - 7:31 pm

Sending LIRR to Lower Manhattan through a Brooklyn tunnel was again brought up at the Next NY meeting (where Doctoroff made the comments)… and so was connecting Grand Central and Penn Station… and through running and lots of other things. Of course we know – money and politics are the issues.

That said – the finance industry has shifted more to midtown than downtown… not that makes a difference for transit though. Even of the major financial institutions – a lot of the back office stuff is in Jersey (and Stamford and Westchester too). The media and technology industries are the ones shifting toward downtown…. those workers don’t tend to live up in CT and Westchester. Then again – that also has to do with transit access… those “creative” types live in Brooklyn and NJ because it’s easier commuting.

asar August 5, 2013 - 8:27 am

As long as it stops crowding on the lexington ave line, it doesnt matter 2 me

Larry Littlefield August 5, 2013 - 9:00 am

Actually, Stringer has already helped decide what the city’s priorities should be for the next 20 years. Richer pensions for those hired before 2008. Everyone in power his age agreed with that priority, regardless of their political party.

Karm August 5, 2013 - 7:32 pm

Exactly – it’s ppl like Stringer why we can’t afford transit improvements. If he got elected he’d give everyone retro-active raises too.

Demetria August 5, 2013 - 9:48 am

More stairwells won’t alleviate overcrowding; they will just reduce the space available to wait on the already overcrowded platforms.

And one train per hour? On the Lexington Avenue Line that’s a drop in the ocean.

Is it possible to widen the platforms by building the extra local tracks and then filling in the current ones? Is there space for that?
I don’t see the political will to do this and unfortunately it will only be after some unfortunate accident due to the overcrowding that the issue may finally be addressed.

Bolwerk August 5, 2013 - 10:13 am

Maybe also impossible, but another way to reduce crowding is to find a way to run more trains. Definitely more than one per hour.

David Brown August 5, 2013 - 10:23 am

The funny thing about Zoning, Location and Transit, is that as important as they are, the politics,financing involved and simple luck are equally important when it comes to major development. For example: There is a stalled project called 610 Lexington Avenue. It is located across the street from one of the BEST Subway Stations in New York (the 53rd St Station (E), (M) & (6 Trains)), as well as Prime Real Estate, but still is not projected to be finished until 2015. You can apply the same concept to 50 West Street & 111 Washington Street (stalled Lower Manhattan projects going back for five years, and not restarted as of now). But, sometimes the opposite can happen. ‘Super storm Sandy’ could indirectly lead to the building of the entire SAS. Right now there is a proposal of Mayor Bloomberg’s called “Seaport City.” (which will stretch from the Battery to 14th St, and is designed to prevent another ‘Sandy’ by building huge buildings facing the East River) If this project gets enacted, the need for increased transit (due to the shifting population) will give the needed push to complete the entire SAS project (including down to Hanover St). It goes without saying that Phase IV cannot happen without Phase III. I think all of it will take 20 years (or more) to get the full SAS completed, but it will happen.

JJ August 5, 2013 - 1:14 pm Reply
Alon Levy August 5, 2013 - 1:47 pm

Your link doesn’t work.

Stephen Smith August 5, 2013 - 3:48 pm

I’m not sure that East Side Access will bring more people into the neighborhood…nobody turns down a job because it’s on the wrong side of midtown. Rather, I suspect it’ll just mean people that were already going to midtown east will go there directly, rather than piling onto the shuttle and IRT West Side or 8th Ave. lines.

Furthermore, it seems like SAS Phase 1 will alleviate more crowding than 4 million sf of new offices (which really isn’t that much) will contribute. People who work on the west side will likely skip the Lex, the shuttle and midtown east entirely, gliding straight into Columbus Circle/Times Square/Herald Square via the new Q. SAS Phase 1 is going to move hundreds of thousands of people a day off of the Lex…15,000 new jobs is much less of an impact.

Furthermore, it’s not clear to me that more jobs in midtown east will actually cause more Lex crowding (at least for people who live on the UES and work in midtown, which is the direction of the most crowding). Seems more likely that it’ll just divert people who would otherwise have traveled to the west side or further downtown…instead, they’ll get off at 59th St. or Grand Central.

Karm August 5, 2013 - 7:33 pm

I tend to agree.

Rob August 5, 2013 - 5:16 pm

How about re-ordering priorities on midtown surface streets?

1. Create SBS or even Full BRT on 6th, 5th, Madison, Lex, and Third.

2. Ration cars in these areas during rush hours.

3. Take away parking lanes on each to create Class I protected bike path.

Epson45 August 5, 2013 - 6:40 pm

Fantasy dreamz

John B August 5, 2013 - 5:18 pm

i love these two lines in that nyt article:

“The neighborhood, a slice of Midtown East sandwiched between Kips Bay to the south and Turtle Bay to the north, is ripe for development. The Second Avenue subway will eventually make it more accessible by mass transit, and the massive Midtown East rezoning — when and if finally approved — will probably result in new office buildings.”

it reminds me of the scene in mad men when peggy’s realtor is trying to sell her on the upper east side by saying that the second avenue subway is coming. that was 1968.

Karm August 5, 2013 - 7:40 pm

The thing about real estate development in NYC is that – without good transit – there is no real push for developers to develop new offices. Why? Top notch companies know to attract good talent they need a good commute. An overcrowded Lex line is definitely something “site locators” would look at for top companies. All this rezoning does is give the OPTION for developers. Big office buildings can not get financed in this economy unless they pre-lease or pre-sell (commercial or retail condos) a good portion.
It’s just like Hudson Yards…. it would NOT happen as it is without the #7 extension. The companies who have signed on so far to move their would not if there was no #7 extension as well. They go hand in hand.
That said – this rezoning is much more modest than that anyway.

Stephen Smith August 6, 2013 - 1:45 pm

Developers couldn’t give two shits about overcrowded trains. The Lex is way more crowded than the ridiculous number of west side and downtown lines, and yet where is the only place office developers will build in this city without subsidies? The east side.

Laymen (or, at least, people not steeped in commercial real estate) don’t notice it because the city has been trying to move development from the east side to the west side and downtown for half a century (first with the 1961 zoning code, then with the various midtown overlays, then with all of the west side subsidy programs, not with the WTC and Hudson Yards). But if you look at rents and the subsidies that are necessary for west side and downtown office buildings, it becomes blindingly obvious – the demand for office space is on the east side, and nowhere else.

Stephen Smith August 6, 2013 - 1:45 pm

sorry, *now with the WTC and Hudson Yards. Ben: any chance we could get a two-minute window to edit comments after we post, to fix typos?

AG August 6, 2013 - 3:13 pm

There has been NO mass construction in the are to be rezoned…. what are you talking about? Midtown overall has been the strongest market – but not this area.
Even in terms of leasing – that area is not the hottest either. Midtown south is actually the hottest.

Stephen Smith August 6, 2013 - 3:38 pm

There has been NO mass construction in the are to be rezoned

Duh, because the area is zoned out with existing structures built out beyond what the current zoning allowed, and has been since the ’80s (and even as far back as 1961)! There is no new construction allowed!

To show the strength of the east side market – the only part of Manhattan where some buildings routinely get rents over $100 a foot (or $200 a foot at the ritziest east side properties, despite the lethargic commercial market at the moment) – see 425 Park. L&L wants to build it with a very arcane loophole in the zoning code that will require them to a) rebuild it no bigger than it already is, and b) keep a 25% of the floor space intact while they do it. This is incredibly inefficient and expensive, and they’re still doing it, for a building that’s not going to get a single extra square foot.

Compare this to the west side, where developers like Vornado are passing on redeveloping things like the Hotel Pennsylvania, where not only can they raze it and build from scratch (without that dumb 25% percent loophole), but they can actually build way more square footage.

Furthermore, midtown east builders are jonesing to get started without even the tiniest subsidy. By contrast, the city is desperate for construction activity at Hudson Yards, where some buildings are getting up to 40% tax abatements. And even though Related has gotten anchor tenants for two of its towers (the only two towers with tenants of the many planned for the area) at Hudson Yards, they’ve always said that they were willing to give the early tenants space at cost. (To say nothing of the World Trade Center, which despite the maaaaaassive subsidies, is still lagging, though admittedly is doing better than where it was six months ago.)

Trust me – the demand is not on the west side or downtown, it’s on the east side, north of Grand Central. The lack of construction activity there doesn’t tell you anything, because construction isn’t allowed. To see the demand, you have to look at rents. And by rents, the Plaza District (that is to say, commercial real estate speak for the 50s on the east side) is far and away the hottest in the city, and has been for generations.

AG August 6, 2013 - 10:29 pm

“Duh” – well that is childish… in any event you made the statement that developers would build without incentive… as if that is already going on. Yes – the point is there hasn’t been any new construction – which is why there is the proposal for a rezoning.
Also – financial firms are not who is driving the commercial market right now. It is technology and “creative” companies… they are not clustered in the area that is to be re-zoned.

llqbtt August 6, 2013 - 9:49 am

I’d say that the Lex needs another 2 tracks that would surely run at capacity for the better part of the day.

That aside, the GCT platform is a cake walk compared to the n/b Union Sq platform on the 4 5 6. If the solution is simply more stairs, that ain’t gonna work.

Ryan 6 Train August 6, 2013 - 4:43 pm

51st is the glaring issue in my book. I use it everyday as I work at 51st/Park. The stair way on the NW corner has been ‘under construction’ for 2 weeks now. I rarely see guys working there, and when I do see workers present they are usually shooting the breeze and not working. Maybe that is why transit projects take so long and cost so much? Just one mans observation.

As for daily station conditions 51st is pain in the ass. Horrible transfer, it’s better than nothing but downtown 6 to E/M is awful. The platforms are very narrow and highly overcrowded with huge columns in the way. This station is MAXED out under current loads, i’d hate to see more ridership tacked on during rush hours.

I used both 51st and GCT for several years and vastly preferred GCT. It was rarely as crowded and I could always take a 4/5 in case of 6 train issues.

Stephen Smith August 6, 2013 - 5:18 pm

These minor stairway projects are in interesting look into the MTA’s (in)efficiency. We don’t see what goes on in the tunnels, but we can probably assume that the same inefficiency we see in the stations goes on in the tunnels, as well. A pain in the ass with small stairway projects, but a huge problem when you consider the massive year-long Sandy shutdown of the R between Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan. Reminds me of the recent inspector general’s report on the LIRR’s less-than-efficient work habits. (Paywalled WSJ article here, full PDF study here.)

ryan 6 train August 7, 2013 - 10:18 am

This is a great read. Hadn’t seen it before. It confirms what many of us have witnessed throughout the years. Working as a commercial lender for a bank if one of my GC clients were to be as sloppy as the MTA with regards to schedules and WIP reports they’d be denied in no time and out of business just as fast. Not the the MTA, they can just raise fares and issue debt with unsettling regularity. I think a system with a complete lack of accountability to the bottomline is largely to blame. This is a government agency after all.

Nathanael August 11, 2013 - 4:29 am

It’s important to remember that the LIRR is the absolute worst of the MTA agencies by a long chalk. NYC Subway and Metro-North are paragons of virtue by comparison. The LIRR is a bastion of featherbedding and laziness.

Nathanael August 11, 2013 - 4:33 am

Thanks for linking to the PDF report, by the way. The LIRR non-work practices are really a scandal, or should be.


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