The rezoning of Midtown East seems to be a hot topic these days. As the mayoral race disappointingly heats up and Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s last few months in office start to melt away, the mayor is going to try to push through this rezoning plan in an effort to grow the amount of office space available around Grand Central. It’s transit-oriented development at its best, but, as I noted last week, the transit element seems to be missing.
At the time, the big issues surrounded the MTA’s vague threat of needing to close stations. With overcrowding concerns along narrow platforms on the East Side, without transit investments, the agency said it would, in the future, have to consider limiting access at certain times of the day. Of course, this “threat” came amidst concerns over subway platform safety, and what better way to ensure that platforms are safe than limiting the number of people on them?
In reality, though, that’s neither here nor there. There are legitimate concerns with crowd and capacity levels at stations that would be directly impacted by any rezoning plan pushed through over the next 10 months. The Times has recently chimed in on this issue as well. Their unsigned editorial raises some general concerns about the politics of rezoning, but as a supporter of upzoning and an opponent of New York City’s snail-paced planning process, I’m less concerned about that than I am of the transit element.
To that end, Juliet Lapidos chimed in with a “Taking Note” blog post on the topic that will unfortunately not see the pages of a printed newspaper. She writes of the need to focus below-ground as well:
Michael Bloomberg, has been warning that New York could lose its wealthiest corporate tenants to cities like London and Hong Kong and Tokyo. But he’s not especially concerned about the city’s rickety infrastructure. He’s worried that our buildings aren’t tall enough, and wants to rezone the city’s premier business area, East Midtown, to encourage development of larger, more modern skyscrapers. If you work in the Chrysler Building, you might see new towers rise above its spire…
But the mayor’s current plan doesn’t really grapple with the problems below ground. Tentative proposals for improving the East Midtown transit situation are unambitious. Forget linking Manhattan directly to its airports — a New York version of the Heathrow Express or the Narita Express. The M.T.A.’s focused on crowd circulation: Increasing capacity on platforms, ameliorating pathways between lines, reconfiguring exits, installing escalators.
That’s not nothing. Better stations will mean commuters can move faster from train to street. If there’s less crowding on platforms, the M.T.A. can run more trains. (Currently there are long “dwell times” in East Midtown because frantic passengers squeeze into trains and block the doors.) Still, none of the authority’s concepts seem designed to address the fact that the area’s main line, the 4/5/6, is already above capacity. As for the long-promised Second Avenue subway, which should eventually reduce overcrowding: The city has financing to complete only phase one of that project, an extension of the Q up to 96th street.
Lapidos notes, as did I, that the MTA’s modest improvements will cost upwards of $460 million in today’s money, but that $460 million doesn’t go too far. It doesn’t bring the Second Ave. Subway past growing job centers east of Grand Central, and it’s unclear how the funds would be guaranteed. The money likely wouldn’t be in place to give the MTA enough lead time to expand capacity ahead of any rezoning and upbuilding. So further overcrowding is likely anyway.
As Lapidos says, “There’s nothing wrong with building taller, newer towers to make sure the business community doesn’t decamp for Tokyo, but surely if we want to compete with Tokyo we have to make sure tenants can easily get to their taller, newer towers.” Transit cannot be an afterthought in a comprehensive rezoning package. It must take center stage. For without transit investments and improvements, no one will be able to travel to the job center atop the center of New York’s economic universe.