In the waning days of the Bloomberg Administration, the ambitious plan to rezone Midtown East died an expected death. The lame-duck mayor wanted to push through his vision for a modern, revitalized and taller Midtown, but the City Council and various stakeholders were more interested in both not rushing and waiting out the next administration. Now, the Midtown East rezoning plan is back on the table, and with it, the call for transit improvements have returned as well.
The rezoning plan itself returned on a Friday a few weeks ago with little fanfare, mostly due to the timeline. Mayor Bill de Blasio has elongated the timeline, and while some work around Grand Central can begin soon, the full rezoning effort likely won’t wrap until mid-2016. Whether it needs to take that long is a question ripe for debate, but this is certainly the polar opposite of Bloomberg’s attempt to push through rezoning in three months.
The MTA, meanwhile, wants to be front and center during the discussion, and the longer timeline should benefit them. Andy Hawkins of Crain’s New York explored the agency’s view in a piece this week. He writes:
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is eyeing big changes to subway stations within the footprint of the proposed midtown east rezoning, and will need a trainload of cash to make it happen…MTA Chairman and CEO Thomas Prendergast said improvements would be needed at Grand Central Terminal, including the Lexington Avenue line and the shuttle to Times Square, and the E and F train station at 53rd Street and 5th Avenue, in order to accommodate more office workers that will come after the rezoning.
At Grand Central, new staircases linking the mezzanine where the turnstiles are to the ground-level station are under consideration, as well as improved pedestrian paths and sight lines to get straphangers from the platform to the mezzanine more quickly, an MTA spokesman said. Currently the station’s signal system allows for 29 trains to pass through every hour, but because of congestion typically only 26 to 27 trains make it through. Relieving that congestion would allow 4,000 to 6,000 more passengers per hour to move through the station.
In the past, Mr. Prendergast said, the development process has forced the MTA to be reactive to new construction, making transit upgrades only after large buildings have been built. “We didn’t do as good a job—we collectively, the city and the MTA—of making sure we identified those and dealt with them,” he said. But midtown east has been different. The MTA has had “a fairly long dialogue” with the City Planning Commission and the Department of Transportation about its funding needs for the rezoning. Those needs will likely be reflected in the MTA’s next capital budget, which is due in September.
When Midtown East first entered our collective consciousness, the MTA estimated its needs at around $465 million. It will update those numbers in the fall, and odds are the price tags have increased. Some of the funding could come from the planned sale of the MTA’s headquarters at 347 Madison Ave. and the transfer of the air rights exist above that rather diminutive building.
Still missing from the MTA’s wishlist for Midtown East though are future phases of the Second Ave. Subway. It’s not the easiest sell because these phases are years away from construction, let alone completion, but it’s possible to argue that nothing is more important to a successful rezoning effort, especially east of Grand Central, than a full-length Second Ave. Subway. Despite these planned renovations along the East Side IRT, the 4, 5 and 6 can’t really handle that many more daily riders, and the Lexington Ave. line doesn’t do the same job of redistributing commuters along the East Side as the Broadway and 6th, 7th and 8th Ave. lines do through Midtown West.
I’m not going to hold my breath here. The MTA is angling for incremental improvements to existing infrastructure — which it needs — but the future for SAS seems up in the air. I’ve heard rumblings that the MTA will soon look to refresh the Environmental Impact Statement for Phase 2, but Midtown East implicates Phases 3 and 4. Will we see those in our lifetimes? Your guess is as good as mine.