Home Manhattan Transit and the death, for now, of Midtown East rezoning

Transit and the death, for now, of Midtown East rezoning

by Benjamin Kabak

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.

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Alon Levy November 13, 2013 - 2:36 am

The sooner New York lets go of the idea that it needs to compete with other cities instead of provide services to current and aspiring New Yorkers, the better off it will be.

Tal F November 13, 2013 - 10:35 am

I think many of the politicians and consultants know that the competition theme is bullshit, but for some reason it tends to win votes and inspire passions in the masses. Just look at Obama’s State-of-the-Union speech a few years back promising to “out-compete” and “out-innovate” China and other emerging markets.

SEAN November 13, 2013 - 11:02 am

What yousay is true, but only in the abstract. Businesses are getting cities to compete by challenging them to see witch one will give them the best corporate wellfare package.

Recent examples include…

JetBlue – nearly moved the HQ to Orlando until NYC gave them insentives to move to LIC from Forest Hills.

Boeing moved their HQ from Seattle to Chicago’s Willis Tower, taking 500 jobs with them. NYC was one of the cities that could have landed them.

AG November 13, 2013 - 9:55 pm

It takes money to provide services – and to provide services you need businesses to generate revenue..
If you think cities don’t compete with each other then you’re wrong… go on any state or city web site and you’ll find a section telling you who to contact to get help to move there.

Bolwerk November 13, 2013 - 10:33 pm

It’s more meaningful to say that cities trade more than that they compete. What they compete for (e.g., water, investment) isn’t quite what companies compete for. In those rare cases where New York and London are competing for the same resource, the clincher will typically be something well beyond the control of either – think how a company in London isn’t subject to the Sarbanes–Oxley Act, and one in New York is.

I don’t take this as far as Alon, but he’s right about one thing: when a politician tells you we need to do with something to compete with someone else, it’s definitely time to raise an eyebrow.

Then, Bloomberg seems to prefer London to New York anyway….

AG November 13, 2013 - 10:43 pm

Fundamentally yes
Well it’s not just London… New Jersey – Florida – Texas etc. send delegations to NYC to entice companies to leave all the time.

Bolwerk November 14, 2013 - 6:18 am

That’s probably a much bigger “competitive” threat than London or China – companies that can go anywhere in the U.S..

Chris November 13, 2013 - 6:10 am

It may be sad that this development will not take place for now, but without a full second avenue line in place, development of the East side of Manhattan would be foolhardy. Instead, we should commit to building the second avenue line, knowing that “if you build it, they will come.” In this case, couple East Side development changes with the commitment to build the transit infrastructure to support the development.

Larry Littlefield November 13, 2013 - 9:20 am

Right. Money has been borrowed to build the Second Avenue Subway three times, and all the massive development as a result of past upzonings pays massive taxes.

But all that money has been taken for other things, or is now going to Florida.

So we are left with a few station improvements in exchange for another upzoning? The real estate interests, the contractors and the public employee unions can never get enough — and leave the serfs with little enough.

LLQBTT November 13, 2013 - 9:39 am

A main choke point at Grand Central is the southwest entrance to the 4 5 6, from directly inside Grand Central. It seems that at minimum, 1 additional escalator and stairwell is needed. Additionally, the fare control area needs to be reconfigured such that additional space is created between the turnstiles and gates and the escalators and stairs. There is too much traffic crossing in every direction there. Another change is to move the operating station agent station away from the turnstile area. Right now, the line forms in the one spot where it’s not wise, in the main traffic area.

tacony November 13, 2013 - 10:56 am

Need more MVMs there too. Always lines at them during rush hours. Always.

anon_coward November 13, 2013 - 9:53 am

good riddance
they need to fast track CBTC system wide and build some more subways in the outer boroughs first

and maybe set up some mini CBD’s in the boroughs to take advantage of reverse commuting

John-2 November 13, 2013 - 10:01 am

Eventually, a few years from now, you’ll have a push from reps in both the eastern and northern suburbs of the city to improve the station alignments at Grand Central, when they suddenly realize East Side Access is opening and both Metro North and Long Island Railroad passengers continuing downtown will be flooding the station in tandem during AM rush hours, and crowding the exits to the terminal during the PM rush. It would be better to be proactive than reactive to that problem, but it may have to wait until the situation is just about to happen before funding is allocated to the MTA to fix it.

anon_coward November 13, 2013 - 10:04 am

the people who work downtown already take the A/E/C from Penn or go to brooklyn and take the train from there. East Side Access is not going to cause more crowding, its for people who work on the east side

Demetria November 13, 2013 - 10:12 am

But you will still have people traveling uptown to 51st/59th and downtown on the East Side. All on the same overstretched line with narrow cars. As mentioned above though, things will need to get much worse before they get better.

anon_coward November 13, 2013 - 10:19 am

i haven’t taken the 6 for a while, but from what i remember it didn’t run that often during rush hour.

why not fast track CBTC so they can run more trains more often? or pull some political muscle and force the LIRR to give up a track or two at Penn for some MNR trains?

John-2 November 13, 2013 - 12:57 pm

They just pushed CBTC implementation back six months on the Flushing Line to mid-2017, and that’s the real prototype for the rest of the system (the L’s CBTC being off by its lonesome in Siemens-land of proprietary, obsolete software). Until it proves itself on the 7 train, it’s not going onto the 4/5/6 or any of the other lines, so there’s no way it could be put in place in time for the opening of ESA.

anon_coward November 13, 2013 - 2:33 pm

due to sandy and scheduling system outages

I still can’t understand why its taking so long and why they are putting money to digging new tunnels before they modernize the system. they should be modernizing first and then expanding

Spiderpig November 14, 2013 - 9:41 am

I really hope people don’t feel the need to take the subway from Grand Central to 51st street if they’re not making a connection there.

AG November 14, 2013 - 7:50 pm

I agree 100 percent… i used to walk to 51st from Grand Central… paying an extra fare would have been a complete waste. Using the entrances further north up Park Ave. cut the outside walk in half during the winter.

AG November 13, 2013 - 9:56 pm

yeah – under the plan that was killed $100 million was being put up by the city to do just that… We’ll see what happens down the line… we know how these things usually work.

Frank B November 13, 2013 - 11:05 am

The truth is that this is a good idea, totally the wrong time to implement it. Until the IND 2nd Avenue Line reaches AT LEAST the 3rd phase, this idea will cause recklessly dangerous overcrowding on those pathetically sized IRT Platforms; its pretty damned stupid and dangerous.

I realize that that Grand Central will bring workers from Upstate, and relatively soon, Long Island. But the truth is that rezoning Midtown East without the IND 2nd Avenue Line is a terrible idea.

Again, I advocate for the notion of Midtown East East, where Long Island City is heavily rezoned for more commercial activity. It already has the CitiGroup Building; it already has the JetBlue Headquarters. It has the BMT Astoria Line, the IRT Flushing Line, the IND Queens Boulevard Line, and the IND Crosstown line There isn’t a tremendous amount of traffic. And the LIRR already stops there.

Problem Solved. Long Island City is perfectly safe and practical to handle all this heavy rezoning, and grows more popular each day.

Let’s reexamine Midtown East rezoning once the IND is finally completed. Right now the overcrowding is a cause for alarm.

Demetria November 13, 2013 - 12:49 pm

Shifting the focus to LIC is a great idea and where the attention should be. Penn, Grand Central, PATH, Flushing, Jamaica, Downtown Brooklyn, Lower Manhattan are all one seat rides.

Guest November 13, 2013 - 9:01 pm

“…grows more popular each day.”


“…rezoning Midtown East without the IND 2nd Avenue Line is a terrible idea.”

Even if the additional phases were being built, it would not be ready until 2050. 63rd street tunnel anyone?

Bolwerk November 13, 2013 - 11:19 am

The funny part is they don’t even seem to care too much about rezoning. They want to avoid any commitment to better transit.

These are the so-called liberals, too.

Christopher Stephens November 13, 2013 - 11:20 am

Not shedding a single tear over this. Any plan that has to get rushed through at the end of 12 years of a mayor’s reign is automatically suspect. On top of that, the biggest clue to the plan’s failure could be found at the end of the NYT article: not a single elected official or community leader could be found to support the plan. Not one. And it’s not as if these were stick-in-the-mud NIMBYs. It sounds like there were negotiations that were producing intelligent concessions from both sides, but not enough.

Does more need to be done to improve transit infrastructure in Midtown East? Hell yes. Should the area be rezoned? Maybe, maybe not. Most of the arguments offered (“competitiveness”, etc.) struck me as baloney and/or a cover for over-ambitious developers. Clearly, rushing through a plan that was going to increase density in an already dense area while the transit infrastructure was lacking (and is about to get worse with ESA) was not something that any sitting politician wanted to take responsibility for.

Good riddance. Let’s wait ten years to see how ESA shakes out and whether we can get the next phase of SAS built. Then we can re-think re-zoning.

Bolwerk November 13, 2013 - 11:52 am

Except maybe for the purpose of limiting industrial uses, zoning is a pretty ridiculous idea in that part of the city anyway. The city already micromanages development too much to make zoning rules themselves meaningful.

Unless I’m missing something, things like height limits are a bit silly. And the transit investment that needs to accompany new construction needs to happen either way.

lawhawk November 13, 2013 - 1:23 pm

Height restrictions and zoning, especially relating to setbacks came about because of the experience with skyscrapers in lower Manhattan and the need to make sure that more natural light passed to the street below (sky exposure plane). Early skyscrapers tended to put adjacent properties and streets into perpetual shadows, especially downtown. The zoning codes enacted in the early 1900s were an attempt to resolve this with setbacks.

It’s an idea that does have merit, but the upzoning was meant to encourage developers to upgrade and update properties around Midtown that are falling behind the more modern office buildings built elsewhere in the City, which are more efficient in layouts, energy usage, while capitalizing on their proximity to existing transit.

The money reaped from the upzoning would then go back into the MTA for additional service improvements.

The upzoning was also meant to fit into the City’s PlaNYC 2030, which sought to reduce emissions and energy usage. Since older buildings (including early glass curtain ones) were less energy efficient, the upzoning would give developers the incentives to build bigger and better, while using less energy and resources over time.

Bolwerk November 13, 2013 - 3:21 pm

Yeah, but interfering with natural light can be considered an engineering problem, and a company that plans to buy and develop will have the ability to appraise that issue before buying. The city approves the construction anyway.

AG November 13, 2013 - 10:01 pm

ummm – the council member who represents that area said it absolutely needs to be re-zoned (and even de Blasio said so as well)… they want union provisions put in… that’s what it’s all about.
The price of the air rights is part of it too… but if you set it too high they won’t be attractive.

David Brown November 13, 2013 - 12:53 pm

I do not think this is a glitch at all. The next step will be demands to Landmark as much as possible, then wait until Phase III. Of SAS is completed. Prediction all of Downtown will be finished before they try and do this again. Gale Brewer will suggest giving Manhattan a break from Construction for a couple of years ( say 2018-2020). The Only thing good about this is the probability of a New Penn Station being erected in the next 20 years just decreased.

VLM November 13, 2013 - 12:55 pm

None of what you said makes any sense or is right and/or intelligible, especially your last line. You actually enjoy Penn Station? You think Gale Brewer or all people will be in a position to declare a moratorium on construction? Do you and Rob Ford shop from the same source?

David Brown November 13, 2013 - 1:35 pm

The Borough President has a lot of say about these kind of projects which is why Stringer’s yes to this was a big deal. Gale Brewer is about the biggest Anti-Development Person in this City short of Andrew Berman and Bob Holman. What will happen will be the upcoming clash with De Blasio taxing firms who have open pits (like 610 Lexington), or who have vacant apartments they will not renovate (see 3rd Avenue past 96th Street), because they refuse to build “Affordable Housing.” Versus Developers who know they are better off holding on to the land and waiting until the time is right (see 50 West Street). The smaller guys will eventually sell out, either to the City to build more NYCHA Projects, or to Extel or Related who can afford to wait De Blasio out. Transit? Good luck even seeing Chambers Street Renovated.

VLM November 13, 2013 - 1:55 pm

Again, wrong and incredibly paranoid. Never mind the fact that literally none of the things you mentioned have any bearing on whether a state agency renovates Chambers St. (as they plan to do before 2020).

William November 13, 2013 - 6:50 pm

I have a crazy ideal to speed service on the IRT Lex,. How about instituting a super express on the line by taking the northbound express and make it a peak direction on the rush hours service

William November 13, 2013 - 6:51 pm

I have a crazy ideal to speed service on the IRT Lex,. How about instituting a super express on the line by taking the northbound express and make it a peak direction on the rush hours service and vice versa on southbound

JMB November 13, 2013 - 9:18 pm

Both north and south express service is heavily used during peak times, at least as far 59th, maybe even 86th. Local as well. The whole line is maxed out, hence the pressing need for the 2nd ave subway.

Guest November 13, 2013 - 8:50 pm

Some of this money from buildings could be used for another phase for SAS.

Dave November 14, 2013 - 12:28 pm

There are so many ways the city could raise revenue to subsidize transit without the rezoning (which I support) that no one is dicussing:
– Commuter tax. Sheldon Silver killed it and we need it back. Get rid of Sheldon (he needs to go) and bring it back.
– Bridge tolls. Two-way tolls at all crossings and a toll at every bridge. Why is it cheaper to drive to midtown than to take transit. And bridges cost a lot of money to maintain. With cash-less tolling (like at the Henry Hudson Bridge) this is possible today.
– Permit parking. Every other major city charges for residential parking why doesn’t New York?
– Subsidized housing parking lots. You live in subsidized housing you shouldn’t be subsidized to own a car. Sell off those lots and let those is subsidized housing fend for themselves.
– Re-do the fare system to charge more for longer rides, like DC, London, Paris and most transit systems. It should cost more to travel from Howard Beach to Manhattan that it does to go from Times Square to Union Square.

anon_coward November 14, 2013 - 12:52 pm

i’m all for bridge tolls but lots of people living in the outer boroughs are against them which means those city council members are as well
i’m for permit parking as well as long as it means i can park on a metered space during the day without paying the meter. as it is now after i drive my kid to day care i have to drive back fast to look for a space and sometimes leave my car far from home and get it at the end of the day
institute zone fares and you increase car usage since car ownership goes up the farther you go from manhattan

want to solve manhattan traffic, build subways in queens instead of spending $10 billion to dig new tunnels under manhattan. or give tax breaks to get businesses to build outside of manhattan. no reason to have most of the jobs in a tiny area of the city that serves no use at night

Ted K. November 14, 2013 - 9:46 pm

The diagram at the start of this post is from the following PDF :
Potential East Midtown Transit Improvements
(Community Board 5, Oct. 2012)
NB – 35 page PDF.

Also of interest :
N 130247(A) ZRM : East Midtown Rezoning
(City Planning Comm. of New York City, 30 Sept. 2012)
NB – 371 page PDF.

Ted K. November 14, 2013 - 10:04 pm

My apologies – s/30 Sept. 2012/30 Sept. 2013/ .


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