After five long years of debate and negotiation, the New York City Council is finally on the cusp of approving a rezoning plan that is essential to the long-term viability of the Midtown East office district. It has been a long time coming but not a moment too soon.
From Grand Central Terminal to St. Patrick’s Cathedral to the fabled admen on Madison Avenue and the picturesque, tree-lined boulevard of Park Avenue, Midtown East has long personified the city’s enduring allure as a center of business and commerce.
While the district remains home to more Fortune 500 companies than anywhere else in the country, the district is undeniably showing its age.
On average, Midtown East’s office buildings are 75 years old, and some of the city’s most prominent firms have begun to migrate to the gleaming new towers sprouting up in Hudson Yards and Lower Manhattan.
The Midtown East plan that was approved last week by the City Council Land Use Committee is a major step in the right direction. First and foremost, it addresses a quirk in the existing zoning law that forces developers to choose between maintaining their antiquated buildings or replacing them with smaller ones comprising considerably less rentable space.
The proposal allows for greater density than currently permitted in a 78-block area roughly bounded by East 39th and East 57th Streets and Third and Madison Avenues. If adopted by the full City Council this month, it would lead to the construction of up to 6.5 million square feet of modern office space at 16 different sites in the neighborhood.
In exchange for creating more office space than current zoning allows, developers would be required to purchase unused air rights from any of a number of landmarked buildings in the district or to contribute to a fund for improvements to nearby mass transit facilities, including Grand Central Terminal. The agreement also would require most new developments to create new public spaces.
While the Midtown East rezoning plan makes great sense on its own merits, the case for approval becomes that much more compelling when you consider how much has been invested in the Second Avenue subway and Long Island Rail Road access to Grand Central Terminal. Once completed in 2022, East Side Access is expected to funnel 162,000 additional workers to the neighborhood daily. To live up to its potential for generating new jobs and tax revenue and to accommodate such an influx in workers, more office space is essential.
Mayor Bill de Blasio and Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and City Council Members Dan Garodnick and David Greenfield deserve great credit for forging an agreement that paves the way for a new generation of signature office towers, while also raising upwards of $500 million from the private sector for mass transit and up to $350 million on improvements to the public realm. Their efforts will also create 23,000 construction jobs and add 28,000 permanent jobs.
Nobody is saying that the end result is perfect.
We believe, for example, that a minimum surcharge on the purchase of air rights, which was set at $61.49 per square foot, could prove counterproductive to the effort.
That said, we believe our elected officials did an impressive job of listening to and drawing upon the ideas and conflicting recommendations of a wide range of constituents, including local residents and property owners, the building, real estate and business communities, preservation groups, architectural associations and transit advocates.
Assuming the full City Council blesses this vial blueprint for Midtown East, the process could serve as a roadmap for a number of equally important rezoning initiatives that are being contemplated throughout the five boroughs.
Carlo A. Scissura is the president and CEO of the New York Building Congress.