Transit and the death, for now, of Midtown East rezoningBy
Shortly after 5 p.m. on Tuesday, November 12, 2013, the third term of Mayor Bloomberg effectively drew to a close. It may still be seven weeks before Bill de Blasio takes over, but when the City Council decided to block the Midtown East rezoning plan and the mayor withdrew it from consideration, Bloomberg’s hopes for one final signature effort to reshape New York City died. It’s yet another sign that New York will have trouble competing with global forward-thinking cities over the next few years and decades, but it’s also an initiative likely to be back on the table by mid-2014.
The coverage of the death of the Midtown East rezoning has ranged from bleak to not. Charles V. Bagli of The Times sees it as a sign of changing political winds, but once Mayor de Blasio realizes the need for revenue, the rezoning efforts will be back with a vengeance. Dana Rubinstein sees it more as a pause than a full stop with various stakeholders calling on city leaders to “get it right” rather than to get it fast, Jill Colvin struck a similar chord. I’m not inclined to see this as anything other than a temporary setback though I worry about the short- and long-term implications as New York can’t seem to build transit expansions in a timely and cost-efficient manner and can’t rezone an area to encourage growth.
The politicians struck a conciliatory tone in their various statements. Christine Quinn — remember her? — and Dan Garodnick issued the word from City Council”
“Creating new jobs in East Midtown – and across all of New York City – is essential. We can and should do more with the commercial corridor around Grand Central,” they said in a statement. “However, a good idea alone is not enough to justify action today. We should rezone East Midtown, but only when we can do so properly. After extensive negotiations, we have been unable to reach agreement on a number of issues in the proposed plan. Among other issues, we remain concerned with the price, methodology and timing of the air rights to be sold by the City for the District Improvement Bonus. We are also concerned with the certainty and funding level of the needed infrastructure improvements, which includes both above and below grade needs…
We are committed to making the best decision for this community and all New Yorkers. We want to see development in the area that is both responsible and encourages growth that keeps us competitive with other cities. But, with so many outstanding issues, there is no good reason to rush the proposal through.
We can achieve all of the goals set out by the Bloomberg Administration and do so in a way that respects the interests and perspectives of all of the stakeholders – the community; the workers who will populate and serve the new and expanded buildings in East Midtown; the landmarks in the area and the developers who support the current proposal.”
The mayor too, despite licking his wounds, recognized that a Midtown East rezoning is inevitable. “This will unfortunately cost the area hundreds of millions of dollars in badly needed subway and street improvements and $1 billion in additional tax revenue—as well as tens of thousands of new jobs that would have been created,” he said. “The inability to reach a consensus on the plan’s details is regrettable, but it was encouraging that nearly everyone involved in the process recognized the need for the area to be rezoned to ensure that it remains competitive with other business districts around the world, and we appreciate the time that Speaker Quinn, Council Member Garodnick, and Council staff put into this issue. We are glad to at least be leaving the next administration a blueprint for future action.”
But what about transit? Now that I’ve sufficiently buried the lede, though, let’s talk about these infrastructure improvements. In this statement, Bloomberg specifically highlighted some transit upgrades for Grand Central. “We have a financing agreement in place to pre-fund $100 million in mass transit and public space improvements before any new development could begin,” he said, “but that funding was predicated on future development, which now will not occur.”
It’s all well and good that Midtown East had a significant amount of money available for necessary Grand Central upgrades. After all, this isn’t a project the MTA would advocate for on its own quite yet, and Mayor Bloomberg has successfully championed other projects that benefit developers and growth. But why do we have to tie Grand Central improvements into Midtown East, other than due to the finances of the work?
As it stands now, Grand Central at peak hours is packed. There’s very little room on the IRT platforms, and even with trains arriving fairly frequently, crowding can reach dangerous levels. On the mezzanine level, the fare control setup is a mess, and navigating between the Lexington Ave. line and the Flushing line is a major hassle as well. These upgrades should happen regardless of the outcome of Midtown East, but they won’t because money is repeatedly an issue.
So we’re stuck. The City Council hasn’t yet acted to encourage developers to replace subpar office stock with new, taller buildings that can compete on a global scale with cities challenging New York for global dominance, and we won’t have transit upgrades because no one will invest in that carrot without a stick. It’s likely a temporary overall setback, but it makes me question why these proposals have to be so intertwined.