Archive for Manhattan

Residents in some Upper West Side buildings are already bemoaning these short queue-jump lanes, a small part of the modest SBS-like improvements to the M86 unveiled Monday. (Photo: Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit)

In an alternate universe where New York City politicians and planners aren’t afraid to take risks, yesterday was a big day for the M86. In this alternate universe, after a short planning process, Transit’s second busiest crosstown route, averaging 24,000 weekday riders, saw massive upgrades as the city opted to close Central Park’s 86th transverse to cars during peak hours, install a signal prioritization system from river to river, ensure bus bulbs and dedicated lanes were in place and generally treat the M86 as worth being a crosstown route over 30 blocks north of the nearest cross-Manhattan subway line.

That’s not what happened. Instead, as part of the Mayor’s promise to call 20 routes “Select Bus Service” by some indeterminate time that was originally supposed to be the end of 2017, a bunch of politicians gathered on the West Side to celebrate the launch of the M86 SBS. After eight years of talking about it, the M86 got a pre-board fare system, multi-door boarding, a few queue jump lanes that are already drawing NIMBY complaints, those weirdly unappealing new forward signs that replaced the hallmark SBS flashing blue lights, and the promise of some bus bulbs.

As part of the upgrades, every politician representing both the Upper East and Upper West Sides sent out a statement of support as though these upgrades are worth multiple rounds of back-slapping. In a moment of utter hilarity considering its taking nearly a decade to get here and the bus route was still late by a few weeks, State Senator Adriano Espaillat thanked NYC DOT for “quickly completing this project” while Jim Clynes, chair of Manhattan’s CB 8, noted that M86 SBS will have “a subway feel.” That everyone felt the need to gather in the first place is telling.

What DOT and the MTA did with the M86 will represent massive improvements in travel time for crosstown bus riders. Dwell times — especially at key locations where the M86 intersects busy subway lines at Central Park West and Lexington Ave. — represented the single biggest challenge to speedy crosstown operations, and if the city isn’t willing to give buses dedicated road space during commuting peak hours, pre-board fare payment and multi-entrance boarding are low-hanging fruit that pay key dividends for those 24,000 daily riders.

But these improvements are run-of-the-mill upgrades that are viewed as best practices for local buses the world over. The MTA didn’t eliminate any M86 stops; the bus still makes two stops on the same block of 86th St. between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues. DOT didn’t reallocate street space except for some limited queue jump lanes that allow buses to get a hard start at red lights. So why the press conference?

When I posed this question earlier in the day, a few of my Twitter followers suggested, perhaps cynically but also accurately, that these improvements wouldn’t happen at all if politicians don’t have the opportunity to grab camera space while trumpeting them. Sadly, this is true, but on the flip side, I wondered if these improvements wouldn’t be treated as revolutionary if 15 politicians didn’t insist on showing up to press conferences or sending out statements every time the MTA and DOT implement on one bus line what other countries consider to be system-wide best practices. Every crosstown bus should feature a proof of payment that allows for multi-door boarding, and such a system should be implemented as soon as the fare payment kiosks are installed, not eight years after the first Community Board presentations.

Until we as a city and our politicians as our city leaders get over the need to have a press conference about something as mundane as a new fare payment system on one bus line and a few queue-jump lanes, we are doomed to watch our transit system die from a lack of Great Ideas and the will to implement them. Politicians should be asking “what took so long?” and “how soon can we get these improvements rolled out on the M79, M96 and M106?” rather than falling over themselves to congratulate the M86 for catching up with most of London’s regular bus service. Don’t slap a fancy name on these ops upgrades. Aim higher. Be better.

Categories : Buses, Manhattan
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The Grand Central subway's mezzanine level will see more space as columns are narrowed. (Via KPF)

The Grand Central subway’s mezzanine level will see more space as columns are narrowed. (Via KPF)

When last we checked in with plans to rezone Midtown East and build up a new tower across the street from Grand Central, we delved into the fancy renderings of the transit improvements. The carrot of $200 million in badly needed upgrades to the Lexington Ave. IRT stop at Grand Central is a hard one to resist, and I’ve been supporting this project from the get-go. As my office is now a few blocks away, I’ve seen the Modell’s empty out, and the building be prepared to be replaced.

Now, the effort is one step closer to reality as the city’s planning commission has approved the necessary rezoning. The whole project isn’t out of the woods yet as it heads to the full City Council, and the Council is sure to push for changes. But it seems more likely than not that we’ll get a tall building across from Grand Central and a far more pleasant subway experience thanks to it. More platform space, better passenger flow and easier access from street level all funded through developer contributions are all part of the deal.

Ryan Hutchins had more:

The biggest obstacle for the so-called Vanderbilt Corridor remains: Passage by the City Council, which is likely to push developer SL Green Realty Corp. to alter its plans for a 1,400-foot-tall commercial skyscraper…While de Blasio’s [rezoning] pitch has not met fierce resistance from community board members and local elected officials, it has been repeatedly attacked by the relatively unknown owner of Grand Central Terminal, Andrew Penson.

His worry? That the rezoning, which will allow developers to fund public improvements in exchange for permission to construct bigger buildings, would devalue the air rights above the landmarked terminal. For example, SL Green would receive additional floor area for its tower, One Vanderbilt, by making about $210 million in improvements in and around Grand Central.

…Specifically at issue, [Council member Dan Garodnick] said, will be whether the $210 million in work SL Green has committed to is enough to warrant the bonus the company will receive. “We just have to throw that onto the scale against a 30 F.A.R. building,” Garodnick said.

To me, this is a potential model for future transit improvements, and the City Council shouldn’t ignore this reality. For the MTA, it’s a new model that encourages public-private partnerships and allows the MTA to fund work it wouldn’t otherwise have the money to perform. Especially at Grand Central — the second busiest station in the system — the dollars will have an immediate impact on a problematic customer experience.

We’ll know soon enough what the future holds for this project, but after Community Board approval and a planning commission okay, it’s likely to pass the City Council in some form or another. The station improvements alone will be a welcome element.

Categories : Manhattan
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Cortlandt St., seen here on September 28, 2001, is still a few years away from reopening. (Photo: MTA New York City Transit)

It’s hard to believe, but an entire generation of New Yorkers have come of age or come to a city without a Cortlandt St. subway station on the 1 train. For decades, Cortlandt St. fed Radio Row and then served as the West Side’s best access point to the World Trade Center. The station, though, was destroyed on September 11, 2001 and, as work has consumed Lower Manhattan over the past 14 years, it has remained closed since then. Based on recent MTA documents, it may still be a few years yet before the station reopens.

In this month’s Board materials, the immediate fate of the Cortlandt St. station makes an appearance, and no, the MTA isn’t considering keeping it closed. As buildings grow at the World Trade Center site, the 1 train’s pass through Lower Manhattan remains a key access point for thousands of West Side and Staten Island commuters who will need transit service to their offices.

The news concerns the MTA’s assumptions of a Port Authority contract for work at Cortlandt St. The details of the politicking are rather mundane. Essentially, Cortland St. had to remain closed while the Port Authority rebuild the Ground Zero site, but the MTA and Port Authority have struggled to coordinate work and finalize cost-sharing arrangements for the repair of the subway stop. A few years ago, the Port Authority issued an RFP a key construction contract with the work split into two phases. Judlau won the bid, but it’s been slow going.

Phase 1 was the easier part. It was a $20 million for structural and demolition work, and it’s nearly complete. Phase 2 was supposed to be around $69 million, and it included a variety of systems work and a complete station fit-out. Work hasn’t begun, and now the MTA is going to assume it from the Port Authority with an expanded scope, more dollars and a longer timeline. The Board’s Transit Committee will vote tomorrow.

In fiscal terms, the MTA will increase the Phase 2 work to a total of $100 million; the money is accounted for in the 2010-2014 and 2015-2019 capital plans. The bad news is that this contract is set to last 36 months now. It’s possible the station could be back in revenue service before Phase 2 wraps, but it seems likely that Cortlandt St. will remain closed for the time being. All in, the station won’t reopen until over 15 years after 9/11. For such a key link to the World Trade Center site, that’s a big gap in service that won’t be restored yet.

Categories : Manhattan
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I’ve tinkered with the site a little today to bring some before and after images of the planned transit upgrades for the One Vanderbilt development. For background on the $200 million in expansion word SL Green is prepared to spend, make sure you check out my morning post first, and then come back here for some good ol’ before-and-after fun. All images in this post are courtesy of Kohn Pedersen Fox.

These new street entrances will bring straphangers to and from the Shuttle platform along East 42nd Street.

By narrowing columns and staircases as well as installing a new fare control area, developers and the MTA hope to improve passenger circulation in the cramped IRT mezzanine above the 4, 5 and 6 platforms at Grand Central.

Narrowing columns will also create more space for subway riders waiting on the IRT platforms and computer renderings that look like Robert de Niro alike.

Opening up unused mezzanine space will improve congested conditions.

A new entrance from the Shuttle platform will provide direct access to One Vanderbilt for those entering the building.

Categories : Manhattan
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A diagram showing planned transit improvements for One Vanderbilt and Grand Central. (Photo via KPF)

A diagram showing planned transit improvements for One Vanderbilt and Grand Central. (Photo via KPF)

Toward the end of his third term, Mayor Michael Bloomberg unveiled an ambitious plan to rezone Midtown East for density. As part of the plans, the Mayor, consulting with the MTA, unveiled a few hundred million dollars worth of transit upgrades. These upgrades were Key in securing then-Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer’s sign off and when the lame-duck mayor saw his rezoning dreams falter, I bemoaned the end of the transit upgrades.

Less than a year later, though, the rezoning plans are provisionally back on the table, albeit in a different form that doesn’t concern us. The transit upgrades too have survived the transition to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration, and yesterday, SL Green in conjunction with the MTA and Kohn Pedersen Fox unveiled their $200 million plan for transit access in and around Grand Central. Their goals — to be completed by 2020 — will streamline passenger flow and expand space in a constrained area, and, most importantly, the costs will be borne by the developers.

The project that developers and the MTA showed off yesterday is One Vanderbilt, a 65-story office building that will be open before East Side Access is scheduled to wrap. It will be directly to the west of Grand Central with multiple access points to the transit infrastructure below, and plans include closing Vanderbilt between 42nd and 43rd Sts. to vehicular traffic.

As far as transit improvements, the renderings are extensive and necessary. Plans include:

  • new ground-level entrances directly to the Shuttle platform along 42nd St.;
  • a below-grade corridor and escalators connecting directly into East Side Access;
  • a 4000-square-foot transit hall in One Vanderbilt;
  • a new entrance to the Lexington Ave. IRT from the Pershing Building;
  • narrower stairs and columns to provide more platform space and better pedestrian flow; and
  • the reopening of enclosed spaces to improve passenger flow on the IRT mezzanine.

All in all, the improvements are a significant part of the $400 million the MTA and City had said they needed to spend when the rezoning efforts were first announced in early 2013.

Although the MTA and SL Green recognize that community boards will still need to weigh in on this plan, transit advocacy groups and other interests are aligning in favor of the plan. “As a transit rider group, the Straphangers Campaign believes the proposed deal between SL Green, the City and the MTA holds much promise for improving the lives of millions of riders who use Grand Central Terminal. In October, the official land use process kicks in, with community boards, elected officials and the public getting a chance to have their say. We will be listening,” Gene Russianoff said.

Others echoed these sentiments. “The public access points, escalators, and waiting area will be a tremendous improvement for Grand Central and East Side Aces and this private investment will ensure the public reaps the full benefit of this world class transit hub,” Jennifer Hensley, Executive Director of the Association for a Better New York, said.

For now, we have promises and renderings. The streamlining of the columns alone are nearly worth the cost of the project, and the rest is just gravy. We’ll see when, if and how long this takes to come to fruition.

After the jump, a gallery of renderings of One Vanderbilt’s transit improvements, all via KPF. Read More→

Categories : Manhattan
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The dedicated bus lane will run Lenox Avenue to Second Avenue.

The dedicated bus lane will run Lenox Avenue to Second Avenue.

When the MTA Board’s Transit committee meets later today, one of their agenda items includes a formal blessing of the unnecessarily controversial M60 Select Bus Servicer route. After months of planning, rollbacks and NIMBY opposition that highlighted the flaws with the process, the committee will vote on the reduced plan, and thousands of bus riders who need better service to Laguardia Airport and down 125th St. will get it. We can celebrate the moment, but it’s also yet another example of missed opportunities for relatively cheap and easy transit upgrade.

In announcing the new route this past fall, MTA CEO and Chairman Tom Prendergast spoke generally of the improvements. “The 125th Street corridor is a vital thoroughfare for Harlem residents and businesses alike,” he said in a statement. “I’m glad we will be able to improve service for our customers while still maintaining commercial loading zones for businesses in the area. Select Bus Service will speed up bus service by as much as 20 percent on the M60 where half of the route’s boardings and alightings happen right on 125th Street.”

The Board materials fill in the details. The new SBS M60 will be a 24-hour bus line that fully supplants the route’s current local service. (The remaining 125th St. crosstown local buses will continue to serve all stops.) Service frequency will increase by 10 percent on the weekdays and around 14 percent on the weekends, and with a dedicated bus lane, for all 125th St. buses, that will run for a little less than one mile between Lenox and 2nd Avenues.

The Board committee book describes the bus lane: “Most of the bus lanes will be offset, or one lane away from the curb, which will accommodate deliveries, community parking needs, and right turns; the bus lane between 3rd Avenue and 2nd Avenue will be curbside and only in the eastbound direction.” It’s better than nothing, but even as the MTA stresses that it and NYC DOT “attended over 50 community meetings,” I can’t help but feel this whole thing is another missed opportunity.

As this new service gears up to launch in the spring, it is definitely an improvement so long as bus lane enforcement comes with it. Outside of the need to improve access to Laguardia, a bus ride down 125th Street is often an exercise in patience and futility. This wide cross-street is chock full of traffic stretching from Fairway on the West Side to the Triborough Bridge on the East. Parking and double parking are constant problems, and as with 96th St., it can be faster to walk at rush hour than to sit on a bus.

With 125th St., the city could have taken the opportunity to rebuild the street space. The street is wide enough to support true BRT with center-running lanes and dedicated boarding areas. It has the ridership to warrant such improvements as well. Instead, Community Boards concerned with the loss of a few parking spots and one quarter of the local bus service threw up road blocks after road blocks to the point that the MTA and DOT never shelved the idea for good. Even after local politicians intervened, the plans are a watered-down version of the initial proposal, and parking will still obstruct the bus lane at certain points. Certain Community Boar members too are still unhappy with any plan that removes parking spaces and improves transit.

So again, the needs of the few and loud outweigh the needs of the many, and we applaud the SBS M60 plans because they will exist in a few weeks. It will be easier for commuters, students and New Yorkers to journey down 125th St. and for travelers to reach Laguardia. For the airport, ultimately, though, what New York City truly needs is a direct subway connection, and for a cross-street, we need bus rapid transit. For now, we’ll just have to keep dreaming.

Categories : Buses, Manhattan
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Dyckman St. 1 IRT Station after an extensive two-year rehabilitation that saw the addition of an elevator linking the mezzanine level and the southbound platform. Photo: MTA / Patrick Cashin

I couldn’t make it up to Inwood this week, but the MTA and local pols cut the ribbon on the rehabbed Dyckman Street station. After two years, $31 million and one lawsuit, the station, its new mezzanine and downtown-bound elevator opened. There’s also a new Arts for Transit installation at the station which finds itself on the National Register of Historic Places.

In conjunction with the rehab, Jim Dwyer penned a The Times column about the impact of the elevator on accessibility. It’s certainly worth a read as it provides a glimpse inside the travels of those who cannot easily get around. MTA officials, meanwhile, praised the spruced-up station. “We have been able to fully rehabilitate this historic station improving the structural aspects and customer amenities while retaining the unique architectural features that have made this station so visually special,” NYC Transit President Carmen Bianco said.

Outside of the good news in Inwood, there’s a light slate of work this weekend. Let’s dive in.


From 3:45 a.m. Saturday, February 8 to 10:00 p.m. Sunday, February 9, 2 trains operate in two sections due to track panel installation work north of Nereid Av.

  • Between Flatbush Av and E 180 St, and via the 5 to/from Dyre Av.
  • Between E 180 St and 241 St. To continue your trip, transfer at E 180 St.


From 3:45 a.m. Saturday, February 8 to 10:00 p.m. Sunday, February 9, 2 trains run express from Wakefield 241 St to Gun Hill Rd due to track panel installation.


From 3:45 a.m. to 6:00 a.m. Saturday, February 8 and from 11:00 p.m. to 8:00 a.m. Saturday, February 8, to Sunday, February 9, 5 shuttle trains are suspended between Eastchester-Dyre Av and E180 St due to track panel installation work at Nereid Av. 5 Shuttle service is replaced by 2 trains between Eastchester-Dyre Av and E 180 St.


From 11:30 p.m. Friday, February 7 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, February 10, A trains run on the F line between Jay Street-MetroTech and W4 St due to emergency Verizon cable replacement in the Cranberry tunnel.


From 11:30 p.m. Friday, February 7 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, February 10, A trains are suspended between Jay St-MetroTech and Utica Av in both directions due to track tie renewal north of Hoyt-Schermerhorn. Transfer between A trains and free shuttle buses.


From 11:15 p.m. Friday, February 7 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, February 10, C trains are suspended between Chambers St and Euclid Av in both directions due to track tie renewal north of Hoyt-Schermerhorn, and emergency Verizon cable replacement in the Cranberry tunnel. Uptown C trains run express from Canal Street to 59 St Columbus Circle.


From 11:45 p.m. Friday, February 7, to 6:30 a.m. Sunday, February 9, and from 11:45 p.m. Sunday, February 9, to 5:00 a.m. Monday, February 10, Manhattan-bound E trains run express from 71 Av to Queens Plaza due to track maintenance at 46 St and 36 St.


From 11:45 p.m. Friday, February 7, to 5:00 a.m. Monday, February 10, Manhattan-bound E trains skip Van Wyck Blvd and 75 Ave due to signal modernization at Forest Hills-71st Avenue and Kew Gardens-Union Turnpike.


From 11:45 p.m. Friday, February 7 to 5:00 a.m. and Monday, February 10, Coney Island-bound F trains are rerouted on the M line from Roosevelt Av to 47-50 Sts Rock Ctr due to Second Avenue Subway construction


From 11:45 p.m. Friday, February 7 to 5:00 a.m. and Monday, February 10, Coney Island-bound F trains skip 4 Av-9 St, 15 St-Prospect Park, and Fort Hamilton Pkwy due to signal work at Church Av. For service to these stations take a Coney Island-bound F train to 7 Av or Church Av and transfer to a Queens-bound F or G train. From these stations, take a Queens-bound F or G to 7 Av or Smith-9 Sts and transfer to a Coney Island-bound F.


From 11:45 p.m. Friday, February 7 to 5:00 a.m. and Monday, February 10, Coney Island-bound F trains skip Sutphin Blvd, Van Wyck Blvd and 75 Av due to signal cable installation.


From 11:45 p.m. Friday, February 7 to 5:00 a.m. and Monday, February 10, Church Av-bound G trains skip 4 Av-9 St, 15 St-Prospect Park, and Fort Hamilton Pkwy due to signal work at Church Av.


From 6:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Saturday, February 8, and Sunday, February 9, Bay Ridge-bound R trains run express from 71 Av to Queens Plaza due to track maintenance work at 46 St and 36 St.

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Renderings show dramatically wider concourses and a reimagined Grand Central as part of the Midtown East rezoning.

There’s a bit more to say about Midtown East rezoning, especially in light of some of the Grand Central renderings the Daily News published earlier this week, but for now, I’d like to direct you to Stephen Smith’s post on the transit impact. As he’s argued in the comments here, he says on Next City that “Transit is not an issue when it comes to Bloomberg’s Midtown East rezoning.”

The argument is one I’ve pushed before as well. Essentially, there is a significant amount of transit capacity arriving in Midtown in the form of East Side Access and transit capacity on the whole shouldn’t be any sort of barrier to the rezoning effort. In fact, there’s going to be more capacity than demand along certain routes. Smith writes:

According to the Department of City Planning, the rezoning is realistically expected to yield 3.8 million square feet, net, of new office space — enough room for, the department estimates, 15,000 more office workers. Contrary to some press coverage, the rezoning will actually be relatively small. For comparison’s sake, around 25 million square feet of new offices alone, with millions more in housing and hotels, are zoned to rise at Hudson Yards.

Meanwhile, there is an enormous amount of new transit capacity coming to Midtown East, many times that provided by the one new Hudson Yards station on the 7 train…With an estimated 200,000 weekday riders, the $4.5 billion [Second Ave. Subway] project will divert many more commuters from the most crowded segment of the Lexington Avenue line than the rezoning will add. Next up is East Side Access, the Long Island Rail Road’s $8.4 billion effort to bring its trains to a cavernous terminal of its own near Grand Central, estimated to host 162,000 rides each weekday and set to open in 2019. Its projected ridership alone dwarfs the impact of any new buildings in the area. Most commuters heading to the new LIRR terminal will be diverted from Penn Station, from which many of them rode the E train to the east side, meaning that space will free up on that service as well…

Short of rebuilding the Third Avenue el or finishing the Second Avenue subway, it’s hard to imagine what other transportation improvements critics could want out of the rezoning. There may be other reasons for opposition, but anyone who takes a cursory look at the infrastructure under construction in the neighborhood can’t help but conclude that it’s slated for way more extra capacity than 15,000 office workers could ever fill. Simply put, transit is not an issue.

There are certainly discrete areas where transit is an issue. Without the rezoning, East Side Access won’t connect directly to the subway. But East Side Access itself won’t impact the subways because the vast majority of riders coming from Long Island won’t need a subway connection. Rather, the issues focus around Grand Central’s passenger flow. Crowding on the subway platforms may reach critical conditions without upgrades, but it’s already a situation that should be addressed, as I wrote this week, Midtown East rezoning or not.

There are plenty of legitimate reasons to put a temporary halt on Midtown East rezoning if the major players feel it is appropriate, but Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio Dan Garodnik, the area’s councilman, have both vowed to move it forward. Any opponents who cite transit as an issue though are using something that isn’t a true overarching problem as a crutch.

Categories : Manhattan
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With the Midtown East rezoning on hold, so too are needed upgrades to the Grand Central transit infrastructure.

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.

Categories : Manhattan
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The MTA is finally set to award a master lease for the Columbus Circle retail space. (Photo: Metropolitan Transportation Authority / Patrick Cashin)

When the MTA rehabilitated the Columbus Circle complex at 59th St., the project, like many others, was delayed and overbudget. By the time the rehab wrapped in 2010, there was no formal ribbon cutting or acknowledgment of the project’s end. It was just done, and the MTA had a shiny new station at its disposal.

With the new station came a new retail opportunity. The corridor underneath 8th Ave. contains approximately 11,500 square feet of retail space outside of fare control, and the 13 stores gave the MTA an opportunity to show that they can encourage high-quality retail. Yet, since open the station, the only thing that’s happened was an RFP issued in mid-2012. Now after fits and starts, the MTA is set to award a master lease to the space to a group headed, in part, by a former MTA real estate executive.

In materials distributed to the Board’s Finance Committee this week, the MTA has unveiled that an entity called Drop By at Columbus Circle has won the bidding to take over the maser lease for the space. The lease will run for 20 years with a 10-year option held by Drop By, and rent payments with start at over $700,000 a year with Drop By owning, by year three, 20 percent of operating income over $2.775 million. The breakpoint will increase periodically over the term of the lease, and Drop By will have the ability to sell digital advertising in the space once the MTA’s current deal with CBS Outdoors expires.

So who won? Drop By is a joint venture between Susan Fine, the former MTA Director of Real Estate who was responsible for the retail revitalization at Grand Central, and 40 North Properties, an investment company held by Howard Glatzer. The MTA doesn’t explicitly address the appearance of a conflict of interests in award Fine’s group the lease but notes that Drop By’s bid offered the highest guaranteed base rent. She has also worked in the private sector for a while since leaving the MTA.

With the lease situation cleared up, the MTA has high expectations for the space. According to the Board materials, the MTA expects “retail uses of the level of quality generally prevailing at other high quality shopping malls associated with transportation facilities in New York City, such as, by way of example, the below-grade retail concourses at Rockefeller Center and the up-to-date terminals at the New York area’s major airports.” The MTA also expects Drop By to fulfill the promises of its RFP as it installs air conditioning in the circulating space and corridor underneath 8th Ave. in the station complex.

It’s interesting that the MTA’s points of comparison here are airports and Rockefeller Center but not Grand Central. It seems a more modest goal for Columbus Circle. Still, it’s clear that Drop By, between the long-term commitments and promised capital upgrades, has higher goals in mind. And those goals matter because the MTA is undergoing a similar process with a more important piece of real estate in Lower Manhattan.

As the Columbus Circle RFP process took a little bit longer to resolve than the agency would have hoped, the Fulton St. Transit Center is set to open to the public in June. It won’t be fully completed by then, and it’s unlikely that any of the retail spaces will be in use. But the MTA wants a similar master lease executed with one entity responsible for filling the spaces there. Think, then, of Columbus Circle as a test run. If the MTA can find a tenant here willing to invest in an underground space, it may be even easier to convince potential investors to look at the Fulton St. Transit Center as a bigger and more visible opportunity.

Categories : Manhattan
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