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.”