Last summer, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s administration announced plans to rezone a 78-block area of East Midtown. While the proposal is designed to strengthen the Central Business District (CBD) around Grand Central with a new crop of modern office buildings, it has also yielded a number of recommendations for public realm improvements that could enliven Midtown’s notoriously cramped streets. In late March, at the request of Community Board 5, the Department of City Planning provided sketches of specific urban design features—from planting areas to wayfinding—to illustrate how the area might look in the future.
“I think we all have a shared goal. We want to transform the public realm from gray to green,” said Edith Hsu-Chen, director of the Manhattan office of the Department of City Planning. “There is a lot of opportunity to have plantings and beauty. That is a really important goal of this rezoning.”
The proposal first addresses the administration’s concern that the building stock in Midtown East, at an average age of 73 years old, is outdated. The aging structures are no longer attractive to incoming tenants, a factor that could strip the neighborhood of its standing as a competitive business district on a global scale.
“It is not the age per se that is the problem, it is the bones of the buildings: low floor to ceiling heights, floors with many columns, and it is not the kind of space that tenants are looking for,” said Hsu-Chen. “We need to replenish Class-A office stock to keep the CBD healthy and vital.”
East Midtown, however, has limited open space for new development. The rezoning would enable developers to raze old buildings and rebuild on their sites at a greater height. The plan would increase the current maximum Floor Area Ratio (FAR) to 24 around Grand Central (new maximum FARs will vary in other parts of east Midtown), allowing buildings to stand nearly as tall as the Chrysler Building. For developers to obtain that extra height above 15 FAR, they will be obligated to contribute $250 per square foot to a District Improvement Fund that would then be allocated toward improvements to the public realm.
With the East Midtown Rezoning Plan just at the beginning of the Uniform Land Use Review Process (ULURP), many of the conceptual elements presented to the community board meeting last month are tentative and will likely change and adapt over time. Before coming up with a list of ideas, Frank Ruchala, Project Manager of Midtown East for the DCP, said that the DCP first measured and mapped out the area to establish a better understanding of some of the major challenges to the public realm.
Department of City Planning identified “priority areas” that could benefit from more open space, plantings and trees, outdoor seating, improved lighting, curb extensions, and widened sidewalks. One such focus is Vanderbilt Avenue. DCP imagines this stretch along Grand Central, now primarily a service and loading dock to the terminal, as a pedestrian gateway and the nucleus of a public space network for the area.
Currently, most of these recommendations are non-specific and make up a grab bag of ideas. But with the recent launch of the Public Review process, the Multi-Board Task Force of Manhattan Community Boards has requested more information from City Planning moving forward. In a recent press release, the task force said the plan should include “a detailed, block-by-block analysis and comprehensive plan prescribing specific improvements to the East Midtown streetscape that will make the area a desirable place to live, work, pass through, and visit.”
City Planning officials said that the specific plans depend, in part, on when development begins, which will open up a stream of funding. “Money will come in over time as new buildings are built, so the question becomes what would one want to do first, second, and third,” said Ruchala. “And that is something we’re trying to work on with the community boards and others to really determine what their priorities in the area are.”