Home Manhattan The transit impact on rezoning Midtown, revisited

The transit impact on rezoning Midtown, revisited

by Benjamin Kabak

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.

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Frank B February 13, 2013 - 8:50 am

Well, these politicians clearly don’t have any guts to actually commit any money to get the third phase done any faster; funding isn’t even in place for phase 2 of the Second Avenue Line, let alone phase 3. Honestly, I will get down on my knees and thank God if we even finish Phase 2. The solution here is obvious; these developers will simply have to go outside Midtown East.

Long Island City is Midtown East East. Citigroup was smart; they bought land there when it was dirt cheap, and now they have a skyscraper at 1 Court Square, and a Skyscraper base at 2 Court Square.

As much as I’m an advocate for a diverse economy including manufacturing, (and noting that currently Queens has the most diverse economy of any borough, with manufacturing playing a crucial role) we need to build where subways already exist, and are underutilized. The fact that Forest Hills was built up far earlier than Long Island City just goes to show what the incorrect zoning can do; Jamaica can be built up with skyscrapers as well; however, LIC is the ideal candidate; They’re so close to Midtown that they’re closer to Midtown than alternate properties downtown that a company might have considered otherwise.

Long Island City should not (and likely won’t be) all hideous, vinyl-sided luxury condominiums. The city should rezone the entire area to allow C5 and C6 zoning. With a law school, major tenants like CitiGroup, MoMa, and JetBlue, its clear Long Island City has major potential to accomplish what the mayor wants; without further overloading on the IRT.

You’ve got the 7, E, M, F, G, Q and N Trains stretched from one end of LIC to the other, including two LIRR stops. (Though those are only useful coming from Long Island, not Manhattan) All of those trains are not nearly as crowded as the Lexington Avenue Line; Quite honestly, adding offices with the Second Avenue Line in Midtown at least 20 years off is poor policy, plain and simple. for a few more minutes’ ride, all of these problems can be solved.

Long Island City is hot, and only getting hotter for this kind of development. Who knows? Perhaps the real estate will get so hot over there some British Bank will want to build over Sunnyside Yards and the MTA will actually get a decent amount of money for the air rights… Perhaps even enough to finish the IND Second Avenue Line. 😛

Matthias February 13, 2013 - 9:09 am

Hear, hear. We need to focus on all our transit hubs. The city should encourage development around Penn Station (happening), Harlem-125 St, LIC, Atlantic Terminal, etc.

al February 13, 2013 - 1:17 pm

The Mayor should embrace South Midtown, West Midtown and Downtown. The stretch from Empire State Building to Javits Center should provide large quantities of modern offices that is accessible to the far reaches of the Tri State area. WTC is getting large new office buildings. Upzoning the area around 125th St MNRR station makes more sense. There is already a large station there. There should be lots of options for anyone who wants accessible new office space in Manhattan. Outside of Manhattan, LIC, Downtown Bklyn, Jamaica, Staten Island’s Civic Center, Yankee Stadium’s defunct parking garages, and even Hudson County are all options to consider.

AG February 14, 2013 - 1:15 pm

Al – I agree… LIC – Dtwn BK – Hudson county are all being built up a lot already though.

Few things though is that Staten Island doesn’t have as great transit infrastructure.. which is why they are focusing on the area near the SI Ferry.

125th is a little tricky for only historic reasons – any attempt to vastly change it would be fought.

I also agree of the area near Yankee Stadium. I personally think the whole are from the stadium across 161st Street (where the Bronx County civic buildings exist) all the way to 3rd and even St. Ann’s Ave. – down to 149th at The HUB should be re-zoned for mixed usage like LIC and Downtown Brooklyn. The 2/4/5/B/D stop there (and the 6 is nearby) – along with the Hudson and Harlem Metro North lines (Yankee Stadium and Melrose respectively). Also on game days a ferry is run to the area. If it is built up – the ferry could run on all weekdays. Many units of housing has been built (especially near 3rd Ave.) and the Gateway Mall along with waterfront parks by Yankee Stadium. What’s lacking is 21st century high density commercial office buildings.

Someone February 13, 2013 - 10:17 am

I will thank God if phase 4 is even conceived.

Bolwerk February 13, 2013 - 1:37 pm

I’m half-inclined to hope maybe future phases won’t happen this generation. The rest of the SAS should be four tracks, and the type of reform needed to achieve that isn’t happening until Cuomo, Silver, Quinn, and their current crop of lieutenants are all well in the past.

AG February 14, 2013 - 12:59 pm

Frank – LIC and Downtown Brooklyn have been purposely sought after in the past 15 years as supplements to Manhattan. The reality is that New York has grown faster than expected… so the increase in capacity is needed everywhere… Those areas are “supplements” as opposed to “alternates” really. I also think The Hub in the South Bronx should be zoned that way… but I don’t think it will happen soon.

TP February 13, 2013 - 9:36 am

How hard would it be to build a new bare-bones weekday rush-hours-only 6 station at 46th St? I’d think one of the biggest problems with the congestion in the Midtown East business district–as opposed to its peers in Tokyo or London or Hong Kong– is that you have a single station essentially handling everything. Siphon some people off to another station and you reduce the crowding at 42nd. Sure, it’d make trips on the 6 take a minute longer, but we’re already delayed by the crowds and door holding as is.

BBnet3000 February 13, 2013 - 9:57 am

I live in Queens and already wont take the E train during the day. 53rd St is a disaster, with 53rd and Lexington having dangerous overcrowding during much of the day. I can save 10-15 mins by taking the F instead.

In the afternoon rush the train is mostly full before it even gets to 53rd/Lexington from people who ride from Court Square to Penn Station.

al February 13, 2013 - 12:40 pm

Some of that PM Peak E to WTC will dissipate as ESA opens and siphons off NY Penn LIRR customers. The problem is instead of getting on E, they will get on City Hall bound 6. This will be lead to dangerous overcrowding at 51st& Lex on 6.

What they need to do is open more northern entrances to Grand Central Terminal (and ESA below), and get an East Midtown circulator in place. It will run down Lex Ave and up 3rd and Madison Ave on existing Bus lanes with signal priority and lane enforcement. Part of this might be adding a bus lane on Vanderbilt Ave to avoid congestion on 42nd St. It will have to be prepaid by East Midtown properties to avoid bottlenecks and have triple door low floor articulated buses to speed boarding.

Someone February 13, 2013 - 10:16 am

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.

The MTA has more money than that. Besides, the tunnels for phase two are already there, and shouldn’t cost much. 🙁

Benjamin Kabak February 13, 2013 - 10:19 am

Not sure what you mean. The MTA doesn’t have funding in place to build any further phases right now. Additionally, even though some parts of the Phase 2 tunnels are in place, the expensive elements — stations, utility relocation, auxiliary structures — aren’t, and the price tag for that phase is still expected to be the same as Phase 1. It also doesn’t address the midtown issue as thoroughly as Phase 3 would.

Someone February 13, 2013 - 10:25 am

Phase 2 should cost less, since there’s only 3 stations to worry about, rather than 4 stations for phase 1.

Benjamin Kabak February 13, 2013 - 10:26 am

Read through the MTA documents. The costs are all laid out. Phase 2 involves a build-out of three brand new stations, just like Phase 1 did.

Someone February 13, 2013 - 10:53 am

Yeah, but aren’t they all double-tracked and cut-and-cover?

AlexB February 13, 2013 - 10:46 am

Phase 1 has 3 new regular stations and 1 station renovation. Phase 2 has 3 new stations, but the station at 125 & Lex is massive and will cost more because of all the construction to allow transfers to Metro North and 4/5/6. Phase 2 will cost about the same as phase 1.

Nathanael February 13, 2013 - 12:39 pm

Phase 2 needs to be broken into two segments.

“Phase 2B”, the 125th St station, is going to be *hard* because it requires underpinning the Lexington Line, underpinning Metro-North, and digging two sharply curved tunnels, bellmouths for theoretical Bronx service, working around the fault line, etc.

In contrast, “Phase 2A”, the 106th St and 116th St stations, are *easy*. This consists of two cut-and-cover stations, period; the tunnels between them are already there. This is a *lot* cheaper than phase 1. It should be made an immediate priority.

al February 13, 2013 - 12:59 pm

125th st Fault runs at an angle. Its under ~100th st by the time you get to 2nd ave. There are other faults running diagonally across Manhattan.




Someone February 13, 2013 - 2:11 pm

The SAS geological surveys have already been conducted. No need for that.

AG February 14, 2013 - 1:21 pm

even though I think they need to correct the injustice done to the Bronx when the Els were taken down… I’d be all for just having the station at 125th and Second – with no connection to Lex or Park to save some money. If a person wants a less crowded train – walking to 2nd ave. is not that much of an inconvenience. Not to mention it would encourage more development in the extreme east of Harlem.

paulb February 13, 2013 - 10:22 am

Building up Queens should be the priority for the next 50 years. Build a new subway line from Houston St., along Metropolitan Ave. and Union Tpke to the Nassau line, then turn south. North Bkln, LIC, all the neighborhoods straddling the subway–an entirely new corridor for business and apartments. And a fast commute for a lot of people in Nassau, too. I know there is no money, I know it’s not likely to happen. But if it’s not a good idea, I’d be glad to know why.

Benjamin Kabak February 13, 2013 - 10:27 am

While Queens and Brooklyn job centers are growing, the numbers pale in comparison with Midtown Manhattan, and if this rezoning goes through, you’ll have even more people heading to the GCT area. You need to find a way for capacity to meet demand, and while your idea — part of the original Second System — is a good one, it shouldn’t be a priority.

Bolwerk February 13, 2013 - 1:48 pm

I really don’t know whether what paulb suggests is a good idea or not, but I think he’s onto something. Very few people understand that subways aren’t supposed to be a consequence of development – rather, development follows subways if it’s allowed to. Even so much about Second Avenue is the consequence of transit that existed long ago – the restaurant/night life is traditionally there because loud bars could be located under noisy els without bothering people. It is what it is because rail transit was there and should still be there.

Someone February 13, 2013 - 10:29 am

You know, there are better and cheaper ways to do that, such as extending the Queens Blvd line to Springfield Boulevard, or extending the E/J/Z along the LIRR ROW in southern Queens.

paulb February 13, 2013 - 11:19 am

Extending along Hillside should have been done years ago, and should be, still.

AlexB February 13, 2013 - 10:51 am

It’s not a good idea for a number of reasons. The biggest reason is because it would not provide nearly as much economic growth relative to its cost compared with a ton of other ideas that are a lot farther along in development.

John Doe February 13, 2013 - 10:31 am

The platform at the 59/Lex station on the N/R is dangerously narrow. They need to demolish that dumb ‘station refuse room’ to allow more space for passengers. While they’re at it ban eating food too in the subway, it’s a gross habit.

Eric February 13, 2013 - 10:52 am

I avoid that station for precisely that reason.

Someone February 13, 2013 - 10:54 am

That’s also why the station is not ADA-accessible. Why worry about that when the station isn’t even accessible by the non-handicapped?

SEAN February 13, 2013 - 10:45 am

All transit hubs need to be upzoned as that is the point of TOD in the first place. Jamaica as someone aluted to earlier has the advantage of having less expensive land like LIC, but has great transit connections including easy airport access. Also dependingon how well those jobs pay, you could live along the Queens Boulevard line or in Nassau/ Suffolk& take the train to work.

AlexB February 13, 2013 - 11:45 am

It makes me think the Second Avenue Subway should have a “Phase 3A” that adds the stops and transfers at 55th and 42nd. Constructing this would divert from the 4/5/6 a number of riders currently coming from Metro North and the E, M and 7 lines, relieving those transfer facilities. Being more than twice as large/complicated as phases 1 & 2, phase 3 as designed always seemed overly ambitious and unrealistic. There is nothing set in stone that the phases have to go in a precise order. Ideally, the transfer from Metro North would be separated from transfers involving the 4/5/6 or 7 so Metro North riders wouldn’t have to contribute to congestion in those areas. As the stops at 55th and 42nd will likely be some of the second avenue line’s busiest, having them now would also be a big bonus for the area and would increase the value of any new developments.

Peter February 13, 2013 - 11:51 am

“a blog post on the topic that will unfortunately not see the pages of a printed newspaper”

Who cares if it ever sees the pages of a printed newspaper? This is 2013. Far more readers have access to the post on the web than will ever pick up a printed copy of the Times.

John-2 February 13, 2013 - 12:43 pm

Phase 3 may only ever move past the conceptual stage if the crush on current transit capacity on the East Side due to re-zoning gets so severe, the MTA and city and state officials have no choice but to do a build-down of Second Avenue at least to Houston Street (i.e., if the people and companies occupying all these new buildings are the ones who finally exercise enough pull with those officials, as well as elected officials in D.C., to free up the funds and cut the red tape do do anything south of 63rd Street).

Ryan 6 Train February 13, 2013 - 1:00 pm

Having worked at either 42nd st or 51st and Lex back and forth over the years while living at 94th st and 2nd I find 42nd to be the far greater station. In the event the 6 is Jacked, and it is atleast 2 days of the week I could always grab a 4/5 to 86th and just walk. 51st is horrid, columns in the middle of tiny platforms and some of the most ridership on the 6 line. That thing is a mangled mess with a shit ass transfer to E from the downtown 6, it’s shoddy infrastructure at it’s worst. Nevermind Boston Properties lackluster maintenance of the escalators.

The benefit to phase 1 is that there are probably a lot of rider’s in the mid 50’s that will walk the couple extra blocks to the Q to avoid the 51st hole.

I feel if the rezone goes forward a major blowout of 51st will become critical even if they can get phase 3 on the sas moving in any meaningful direction.

Someone February 13, 2013 - 2:13 pm

The shithole called Harlem is getting a subway before the more developed area called East Midtown… ?!?!

Someone February 13, 2013 - 2:29 pm

Whoops, sorry. I thought you were talking about Phase 2 of the SAS.

Bruce M February 14, 2013 - 12:13 am

I suggest that developers that wish to take advantage of this new zoning also be required to pay into a fund to pay for transit improvements and subsidize new construction.
Secondly, I wonder–would it make sense to switch Phase for Phase 3 instead? It would bring service to Midtown East (The T train would have to run alongside the Q to 63rd St.) a generation sooner than the current plan.

AG February 14, 2013 - 1:24 pm

Bruce M – developers contributing to transit infrastructure is a part of the re-zoning proposal.

Larry Littlefield February 14, 2013 - 10:43 am

Bottom line: when the Upper East Side was turned into the nation’s densest residential district, and East Midtown was turned into its densest office district, after WWII, the city tore down the Second and Third Avenue els but promised the Second Avenue Subway.

Bond issues were passed for that subway in the late 1950s, late 1960s, and mid-1990s.

Hopefully, if they can just get that section open soon, the politicians can be pressured to keep building, as is the case for the third city water tunnel.

To make a third phase more popular, folowing the completion up to 125th Street in phase II, I would add the DeKalb to Rutgers Tunnel connector to phase II, which would also provide a hedge against another Manhattan Bridge issue.

Then have the SAS swing over the Avenue A/Essex below 14th Street, add a stop in the East Village, and merge in to the IND before Delancey Street. Those heading for Lower Manhattan could transfer there. The “T” would continue on to Brooklyn via Rutgers Tunnel (along with the F) and then hit the southern division of the BMT via DeKalb.

Moreover, the East Village or 14th Street station could also serve as a terminal for service from Queens via 63rd Street.

One might also cut down on the NIMBYs and expense, and have faster service for those traveling through, by having no stops between (north of) 42nd Street and (north of) 14th Street.

AlexB February 14, 2013 - 12:43 pm

Connecting the 2nd Ave Subway to the Rutgers tunnel is a great idea. If the proposed route through downtown is ever built and connected to a line in Brooklyn, that is great, but people don’t realize how much time (5+ minutes) the Rutgers tunnel can save compared with traveling through downtown or transferring at Houston/2nd. If Brooklynites want a genuinely fast commutes, run the T along the Culver express, through the Rutgers tunnel, and up 2nd Ave. This would cut at least 10 minutes off tens of thousands of commutes to East Midtown for riders of the R, A/C/G and F lines. After Long Island and to a less extent Queens get their amazing East Side Access, it would be time for Brooklyn to get something of equivalent scope and effect.

Someone February 14, 2013 - 8:51 pm

You realise that there’s going to be a bottleneck between 4th and Church Avenues, right?

AG February 14, 2013 - 12:44 pm

In regards to Ms. Lapidos comments: Tokyo – London – Hong Kong all have more expensive commercial real estate than NYC. They all have an average younger stock of buildings (a lot of which has to do with World War 2 reconstruction). What ppl forget is that NYC is no longer even the most expensive in this hemisphere (commercial wise). Sao Paolo in Brazil actually takes that “honor” (a matter of fact a friend who worked here in banking was transferred to that city some years ago).

It’s not even really about taller buildings… it’s about more modern buildings. It’s the reason many companies left lower manhattan and went to midtown and NJ. The old commercial buildings became converted to residential use because its more feasible to retro-fit for residential than modern office space.

That said – I also agree money needs to be used to build the 2nd Ave. line not just from downtown to 125th Street – but also up to “The HUB” in the Bronx in order to correct the loss of rail when the Els were taken down there as well. The question is – where is the money going to come from??? Fact is unless the city can make it conducive to modern buildings (while still preserving architectural gems) – tax revenue won’t keep up with costs… and certainly won’t allow for transit expansion.

llqbtt February 14, 2013 - 1:47 pm

Forget SAS. I mean, we all want to see it happen, but it’s too far from Grand Central anyway. The additional capacity needs to be right there and will be needed with ESA anyway.

A standing problem is that the people in charge don’t have to live it every day, so they see numbers and volume and concepts, but going in an out of the entrance to the 4 5 6 7 just off 42 St & Park in GCT and so many other access points along the Lex is a whole other world.

The Lex needs another 2 tracks. Express/local, I don’t know. But here’s the rub, it shouldn’t be as ‘difficult’ as SAS because: (i) build another level below, (ii) a subway is already along the ROW (take that NIMBY’s!) (iii) construction can be done with minimal disruption up top (NIMBY’s I’m playin’ your song again!) (iv) the Lex is a central line and makes key connections at 59 St, GCT, Union Sq, Fulton and so on so they are already there and probably a bunch of other good business case points that I’m not rattling off at the moment.

A 6 track subway line? I say why the $&%^@* not! If the demand is there, and it is, that’s what matters.

al February 14, 2013 - 7:18 pm

CBTC and get the 6 up to 40tph. Another problem lies in the Parkchester terminal relay setup. There isn’t a switch to the south of the station for trains to move from the northbound track to the middle track. That forces fumigation and a relay sequence to the north. All this slows down the turnaround.

Someone February 14, 2013 - 8:54 pm

The Q is the line getting the CBTC system that will allow it to run 40 tph. Also, the fumigation in City Hall is a huge problem.

BenW February 19, 2013 - 7:13 pm

They fumigate at City Hall? What? I thought people routinely sat in the train while it went through the loop?

Someone February 14, 2013 - 8:55 pm

You mean, a super-express metro line under Lexington/Park. That could be used to reroute trains on the 5 service to Brooklyn during rush hours.

Alon Levy February 15, 2013 - 6:59 am

There is a super-express line already, half a block away. It just has non-integrated fares and terrible off-peak schedules because Mainline Railroads Are Special.


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