Whenever I think of the Lexington Avenue line and Midtown on Manhattan’s East Side, I am reminded of a Yogi Berra quote. “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded,” the famed Yankee catcher once said. On its surface, it’s a silly line, but when you think about, it’s makes a lot of sense. No one new will go somewhere that’s too crowded.
Midtown East and the Lexington Ave. line fulfill Yogi’s Yogism perfectly. Both are so crowded that no one wants to go there anymore. Riding the 4, 5 or 6 trains at peak hour is a singularly unpleasant experience, and walking around Midtown during the work day isn’t any better. As far as the eye can see, there are people, and no one moves as fast or as efficiently as anyone walking through this mess of humanity would hope.
Furthermore, because of these crowds, many new businesses look elsewhere for office space. They look to the Flatiron District, Silicon Alley or Chelsea. They look for places with diverse transit alternatives that are more accessible to other parts of the city. They look for places where people go because they aren’t too crowded.
Now, don’t get me wrong; Midtown is still an exceedingly popular place to work. Few firms are jumping ship, and the convenience of Grand Central as a hub for subway riders from the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, Westchester and points north remains unparalleled throughout the city. But this is my roundabout way of asking if we need more office space in the area without addressing transit capacity concerns. It’s a vital question as the mayor’s last great plan to reimagine Manhattan — a rezoning plan, at that — moves forward.
The Midtown rezoning effort seems like a fait accompli. Nearly everyone seems to recognize the major issues with the plan, but no one is willing to stop it. Bloomberg has reshaped as many parts of the city as he can, and in the last five months of his reign, he wants to upzone Midtown as well. It sounds good, but do we need it? On one the hand, with the Hudson Yards and 1 World Trade Central on the way, New York will have a glut of office space hitting the market over the next decade. On the other, we could always have more. The costs though aren’t commensurate with the increase in square footage, and another major issue remains: The plan does not increase transit access.
In a meandering piece that takes a stand against Bloomberg’s plan, Michael Kimmelman of The Times touches briefly upon the transit issue. The following three paragraphs should be the centerpiece of any argument against the Midtown rezoning and a hint toward the right path:
New York can surely never win a skyscraper race with Shanghai or Singapore. Its future, including the future of Midtown real estate values, depends on strengthening and expanding what already makes the city a global magnet and model. This means mass transit, pedestrian-friendly streets, social diversity, neighborhoods that don’t shut down after 5 p.m., parks and landmarks like Grand Central Terminal and the Chrysler Building.
If New York wants to learn from London, Tokyo and Shanghai, the lessons aren’t about erecting new skyscrapers. Big cities making gains on New York are investing in rail stations, airports and high-speed trains, while New York rests on the laurels of Grand Central and suffers the 4, 5 and 6 trains, which serve East Midtown. They carry more passengers daily than the entire Washington Metro system.
Improving the lives of the 1.3 million people riding those trains would instantly make the city more competitive. Adding thousands of commuters who work in giant new office buildings without upgrading the surrounding streets and subways — the Second Avenue subway won’t do it — will only set the city back.
There’s no doubt in my midn that Kimmelman is correct. Without paying attention to the transit needs, the Midtown rezoning plan will overburden and already overtaxed transit line. The 4, 5 and 6 cannot fit more people, and the inbound 7 trains to Grand Central are nearing crush loads as well. East Side Access will help deliver more suburban commuters to the area, but the subways cannot handle the load.
Yet, instead of sacrificing the Midtown rezoning to the transit gods, what if we turned the plan into a transit savior? Through the proper combination of tax-increment financing and assessments on developers, the city can rezone Midtown while collecting money to ensure that the Second Ave. Subway can move forward — and through the upzoned area. Such a plan would be a win-win for a neighborhood that needs new building stock but also needs better transit access.
We shouldn’t be afraid of Bloomberg’s plan to upzone Midtown, and we shouldn’t be afraid of more density. We should be concerned with a plan to increase office space without a corresponding bump in transit capacity though. A creative solution isn’t far away, and a true leader would bring the two to the public in tandem. It’s not too late, but Bloomberg’s lame-duck clock just keeps on ticking.