City's Plan to Rezone Large
Part of Midtown East is Terrible
There Are Too Many Buildings Over 50 Years Old Is Ludricous
By Carter B. Horsley
Mayor Bloomberg's plan
to upzone the area around Grand Central Terminal is preposterous!
and Amanda M. Burden, his head of the City Planning Commission, argue
that it is necessary for the city to compete with major cities around
the world that now have bigger and more impressive skyscrapers and
because many of the "Midtown East" buildings around Grand
Terminal are more than 50 years old and that many companies want newer
buildings with larger floors and newer technologies.
he wants to make very drastic changes to the area's zoning but delay
their implementation for five years so that his ill-conceived plans,
mainly by The Related Cos. to develop the "Hudson Yards" west of Penn
Station, and the completion of the incredibly delayed redevelopment of
the World Trade Center site, can be protected from competition in the
In addition, the proposal would make a mockery of the
city's preservation efforts. More than a generation ago, I
the creation of a Grand Central Terminal Historic District to preserve
not only the then remaining masonry architectural integrity of
area but also the very notion of Warren & Wetmore's magnificent
plan for "Terminal Center" in and about the terminal. Since
then, however, much of the area, particularly along Madison Avenue, has
been reclad in glass with no absolutely architectural distinction.
A front-page article October 7, 2012 by Charles V. Bagli in The New York Times
notes that "the owner of the 19-story Roosevelt Hotel at Madison Avenue
and 45th Street could replace it with a 58-story tower under the
proposed rules," adding that "Current regulations permit no more than
30 floors." The Roosevelt is the last of the great and quite
grand "railroad" hotels that were erected near the terminal to survive
as the Commodore and Biltmore Hotels have long since been reclad and
The proposed boundaries of the district would run
north of the north side of 39th Street to the south side of 57th Street
100 feet or so east of Fifth Avenue on the west and extend as far as
about 100 feet or so west of Second Avenue between 42nd Street and
between 45th and 46th Street. and between the east side of Lexington
Avenue between the north side of 40th Streets an the south side of 42nd
Street and near the south side of 46th Street and the south side of
48th Street about 100 feet or so east of Third Avenue and the west side
of Third Avenue between 48th and the north side of 54th Street and from
the south side of 55th Street to the south side of 57th Street about
100 feet or so east of Park Avenue.
A map accompanying Mr.
Bagli's article specifically identified 27 large sites for "potential
and projected office construction," but the last graph noted that
'entities outside the Grand Central area, meanwhile, are pressing the
administration to broaden its boundaries," adding that St.
Patrick's Cathedral, Central Synagogue and St. Bartholomew's Church,
which are all further north, want the same ability as Grand
Central Terminal to sell unused development rights. But some
developers and city offiials questoin whether the value of development
rights would decline if supply is increased."
The plan also
flies in the face of the city's long-standing NIMBY (Not In My Back
Yard) attitude fostered by fans of Jane Jacobs, an urban planner who
moved to Toronto, that has thwarted many efforts to let the city
encourage good development and architecture in the facing of
ever-mounting competition from many cities outside the United States.
As a result, until very recently, New York has been a
of high-rise design for a generation or so.
The article did not
mention that this "debate" is occuring now as two midtown projects are
shattering the skyline: Extell Development's One57, a 1,004-foot-high,
mixed-use tower across from Carnegie Hall on 57th Street and Harry
Macklowe and CIM's 1,394-foot-high mixed-use tower at 432 Park Avenue
on part of the former Drake Hotel site on the northwest corner of 56th
Street. Both of these very tall projects are proceeding
"as-or-right," without public review, but another project, Hines
Interests' 54th Street mixed-use tower expansion of the Museum of
Modern Art on the same block designed by Jean Nouvel, that involves
transfer of air-rights from the University Club was ordered to reduce
its height by about 200 feet by Ms. Burden so as not to interfere with
the silhouette of the Empire State Building, almost a mile away, even
though her commission outrageously recently approved another planned
tower by Vornado almost as tall less than two blocks away from the
Empire State Building.
Last week, a developer announced
"as-of-right" plans to double the height of an existing tower at 425
Park Avenue with a design by Sir Norman Foster. The Foster
however, would not provide bigger floor sizes that the
plan maintains the marketplace demands, an argument that was used
decades ago to change some of the city's zoning to provide large floors
for trading companies and companies with large "back-office" needs.
it is true that some companies like big floors because they are cheaper
to build, most of those companies have already moved to New Jersey and
elsewhere if they were truly frustrated with the city's antquated
zoning. And some big companies, like Google, have actually
recently found very, very big office floors in buildings like 111
Building, left, Roosevelt Hotel, center, Brooks Bros.
of the sites specifically identified in the article as potential
development sites include some very well-known and fine buildings such
as Brooks Brothers on Madison Avenue, the Yale Club on Vanderbilt
Avenue, the Pershing Building on the southeast corner of 42nd Street
and Park Avenue and the recently reclad office building on the east
side of Madison Avenue across from the former I. B. M. Building.
Yale Club on Vanderbilt Avenue
proposed boundaries stop shot of the generally lackluster buildings on
Fifth Avenue between 43rd and 48th Streets and those on the east side
of Third Avenue between 48th and 55th Street.
The area that the
city is considering includes such world icons as the Chrysler Building,
Grand Central Terminal, the former New York General Building straddling
Park Avenue, the Seagram's Building, Lever House, the former Union
Carbide Building on Park Avenue, the Chanin Building and the former
Socony Mobil Building on 42nd Street at Lexington Avenue, and the
Although some community leaders such as
Councilman Daniel R. Garodnick have criticized the Bloomberg
Administration for failing "to consider a host of substantive issues
before plunging ahead," according to Mr. Bagli's article, Ms. Burden
has "rebuffed requests from community boards and elected officials to
slow down the process."
The proposal would let builders buy a
"district improvement bonus" to be allowed to erect 20 percent more is
allowed under existing zoning and then they could buy more development
rights from the city or landmarks in the city that have unused
development rights, but the city has not detailed what limits if any
might be imposed and the conditions for permiting the transfer of the
air rights. Now has it indicated the legality of permitting
transfers and not others as in the case of the Nouvel project with the
Museum of Modern Art. Furthermore, it has not presented any
public renderings of the maximum possible development it plans to
authorize. Clearly, some projects might eat up more
right than others and it should be remembered that Grand Central
Terminal has been sitting on a huge amount of unused air rights for a
very long time without any takers.
Why is the city focusing on
the Grand Central Terminal area and the extremely congested Lexington
Avenue subway instead of trying to promote development in areas of the
city that are well service by public transit such as 125th Street and
Park Avenue, or the Garment Center, or parts of Queens and Brooklyn and
the Bronx, or Governor's Island? When London wanted to expand
financial services sector a few years ago it created Canary Wharf.
most troublesome issue, of course, is where are the design guidelines,
the type that Jacquelin Robertson created for Midtown and Alexander
Cooper and Stanley Ecktstut created for Battery Park City.
Should we circle the wagons to fend off the preservationists?
Should we launch a pre-emptive strike against those worldly
municipalities that have already usurped architectural glory by
building more exciting, beautiful and wonderful projects than New York
in the last several decades?
There is no question that
the city's zoning and community activism and a quiescent press over the
years has stifled great design to a great extent in New York.
Community imput, of course, should not be abandoned and has
resulted in better projects and some community board members are very
intelligent, very alert, and very sensitive and not all are hysterical,
ignorant nay-sayers. Clearly, too many major political
devote too much energy to economic issues and don't understand urban
aesthetics, urban thrills, and urban awe as many other worldly cities
have begun to discover. Of course, what can you expect of a
that wallows in the World Trade Center quagmire of incompetence or the
decision not to insist on a second 42nd Street station for the
extension of the subway from Grand Central Terminal to near the Javits
What's the hurry? Have we all tired so quickly of the notion of
boutique buildings of quality?
the two needles going up on 57th Street are any inkling of what the
Bloomberg Administration envisions, heavens help us as they are real
eyesores that will not enhance the skyline or the city's international