Midtown East Rezoning Amended to Appease Critics

The Department of City Planning has amended its Midtown East rezoning plan in response to widespread criticism and following the rejection of the original plan by multiple community boards.

A new amendment allows St. Patrick's Cathedral and other landmarks to sell unused air rights

A new amendment allows St. Patrick’s Cathedral and other landmarks to sell unused air rights

A major amendment proposed will allow residential units to comprise up to 20 percent of the total space within new office skyscrapers. The change comes in response to concerns that a strictly office district would put a damper on vibrancy and nightlife, and as developers look to cash in on high demand for residential space and record condo pricing.

The DCP called the amendment “a mixed-use approach that has been a goal of community leaders,” in a statement.

In addition to the allowance for more housing, new amendments allow landmarked churches and synagogues to sell unused air rights; hotel development is restricted; and active rooftops are encouraged.

The city will still sell commercial air rights for $250 per square foot and residential rights will have a higher price tag, but another amendment creates a new air rights transfer district  between 48th Street to the south and 57th Street to the north.

This means landmarks like St. Patrick’s Cathedral, St. Bart’s Church, Central Synagogue and Lever House, which have millions of square feet of unused air rights between them, will now be able to sell those unused rights to any buyer in the district.

“In response to concerns expressed by landmarked religious institutions, the Department is proposing giving all landmarks located in the northern section of the zoning area increased flexibility,” the DCP stated, noting that developments must have avenue frontage and be at least 25,000 square feet in size in order to qualify for buying air rights from the city – a stipulation that was included in the original proposal.

Under another amendment, developers may also apply for a waiver that would allow them to redevelop parcels with between 150 and 200 feet of frontage, whereas the original plan drew the line at 200 feet for “large-scale development.”

The modifications also restrict the amount of hotel use permitted on individual sites to 20 percent of a new development; and allow sites currently occupied by large hotels to rebuild their hotel square footage in the new development.

“Concerns were also expressed that allowing hotel use to occupy the entirety of a new development would undermine the proposal’s chief goal of incentivizing modern office space,” the DCP said, regarding the hotel amendment.

Among other revisions, the plan encourages active rooftop uses like restaurants and observation decks, nullifying “stacking rules” that traditionally forbid such non-residential uses above apartments.

At its essence, the plan provides zoning incentives for the development of a handful of new, Class-A, state-of-the-art and sustainable commercial buildings over the next 20 years and it is geared towards revitalizing the area’s current building stock, which is on average 70 years old.

Proponents have argued that office development in the area is essential to remaining competitive, especially with new development rising at Hudson Yards and in Lower Manhattan. Preservationists, on the other hand, have earmarked a number of buildings in the rezoning area for landmark status, including the Graybar Building at Grand Central Station, the Pershing Square Building at 125 Park Avenue and the Yale Club.

Community Boards 5 and 6 were among those who rejected the original plan last month.

The new amendments will serve as options for the City Council to address when it considers the plan for final approval later this year.

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