One person’s “beautiful” is another person’s “dowdy,” and someone’s pronouncement of “architectural significance” is another’s “obsolescence.” These are the terms people are using in a clash over zoning and related plans that will likely shape a historic part of New York City for the future. Consider the character and skyline of Manhattan’s Midtown East, where New York icons such as Grand Central Terminal, the Chrysler Building, the Lever House, and the Look Building stand out among the mix of old and new buildings. Some say the area is falling behind and is a dead zone for new business development, but others cherish its character and say that quality is integral for its future success.
Now picture this area if developers construct many new, huge glass office towers, of the types we see in the Times Square vicinity and other city neighborhoods. What might the future look like in Midtown East? Would it remain a livable, walkable neighborhood for residents and others if it becomes home to a sea of humongous office towers? Would the changes kill the area’s uniqueness and what has made it one of the world’s most famous neighborhoods?
The makeup and quality of life in a 73-block area of Manhattan’s Midtown East are very much at stake as the Bloomberg Administration seeks major zoning changes before the end of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s term this year. Most everyone involved, from the administration to civic leaders to real estate and construction interests, agree that Midtown East – an area roughly from East 39th Street to East 57th Street between Second and Fifth avenues – needs some dedicated investment and zoning changes. But some say a push for bigger and bigger office towers without significant consideration of the neighborhood’s historic landmarks, transit, public space, and livability is going to create a sterile, congested neighborhood and kill the qualities that made this neighborhood so rich in the first place.
The sides have profound variations in their visions, ideas, and priorities. The Bloomberg Administration’s priority, through the New York City Department of City Planning (DCP), is to jump-start the building of office towers in a neighborhood that has seen the construction of only two new office buildings in the last decade. Commercial, real estate, and construction interests say the rezoning will generate new construction and thousands of new jobs. However, others, from the Municipal Art Society (MAS) and the Historic Districts Council to some New York City Council members, Community Boards, and architect Robert A.M. Stern, contend that the city’s initiative is narrow, rash, and possibly careless. It ignores the need for residential space and will harm the neighborhood’s landmarks and its quality of life, produce horrible congestion, and shortchange investment in transit, critics say.
Could the beautiful views of the iconic Chrysler Building and Grand Central Terminal be forever obscured by the type of development rezoning ushers in?
The upcoming weeks and months will be crucial as the public gets more opportunities to weigh in on the proposal. A formal land-use review process is underway. Moreover, in response to the strong reaction the rezoning effort has already engendered, city planners have hired a team of urban planning and engineering consultants to lead public workshops and produce a plan for the streetscape and address concerns about crowded sidewalks and a lack of green space.
Simply put, the forces behind a massive rezoning prioritizing new office towers believe that these changes are necessary so that New York can compete with cities such as London and Tokyo. Some 80 percent of the buildings in this district are more than 50 years old. Those against the city’s push say the plan overemphasizes huge commercial buildings that would obliterate the distinctiveness and heritage of some of New York’s most iconic landmarks and their surrounding neighborhood. Here’s a look at the important elements, what some of the key players say, and the next steps.
The City’s Rezoning Proposal
New York City established the current zoning for Midtown East some 30 years ago. Now the city’s planners say they want to “seed” the area with new, state-of-the-art, and sustainable mega-size office buildings. To do so, the city would allow much higher density and support developers assembling large parcels for commercial building development. The plan puts primacy on the development of Class A office space (defined as buildings that compete for the most prestigious office users at rents above average for the area and that have state-of-the-art systems and excellent accessibility).
What would gargantuan office buildings do, however, to the skyline’s profiles of Grand Central and the Chrysler Building, and to the neighborhood’s personality? Certainly, the area adjacent to Grand Central Terminal would be in the developers’ bull’s eye if the rezoning takes place, so what kinds of changes are desirable? The rezoning would permit the greatest densities on large sites with full-block frontage on avenues around Grand Central Terminal. The city would require developers who obtain higher density bonuses to contribute to a District Improvement Fund for the area’s transit and pedestrian networks.
But will that be enough? Critics say it’s far from assured that sufficient money would be devoted to improvements, especially to the East Side’s already-overcrowded subway platforms in midtown. Developers who meet certain benchmarks for contributing to the improvement fund could purchase additional density through the sale of air rights from landmark buildings.
City planners estimate that the proposal would generate an additional 4.4 million square feet of development in the next 20 years. However, the Municipal Art Society counters that the city’s analysis undercounts how much development could occur. Architect Stern described just how much the giant skyscrapers would dwarf iconic buildings, in a New York Times op-ed piece in April: “With district improvement bonuses, the City Planning study proposes to double the developable floor area on some sites around Grand Central, allowing enough additional square footage to give us a neighborhood of towering office buildings, some as tall as 1,300 feet or more.” Consider, as Stern noted, that the Chrysler Building is 1,046 feet to the top of its spire.
Nearly 50 years ago, the Municipal Art Society joined with others to save Grand Central Terminal from sure obliteration. Now, the MAS and others who have a differing vision than the city’s say that the lessons of preservation appear to have been forgotten. Those expressing many concerns about the city’s plan include preservation groups such as the New York Landmarks Conservancy and the Historic Districts Council; Community Boards 4, 5, and 6; and some members of City Council.
This Midtown Manhattan neighborhood “is home to some of our most iconic landmarked buildings, as well as many architecturally significant buildings, whose character should not be dismissed cavalierly,” said Council Member Gale A. Brewer last autumn in testimony on the rezoning. “It would be a pyrrhic victory for the city if hastily planned development blotted out the views of the Chrysler Building, Waldorf-Astoria, RCA Building, Chanin and Lincoln Buildings, the Ford Foundation, and others.”
“These towers, like the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center, are defining of New York,” added Brewer, who represents the Upper West Side and the northern part of Hell’s Kitchen. “We dismiss them at our peril.”
The MAS maintains that the civic commitment that created today’s treasures in New York’s neighborhoods is missing in the high level of emphasis the Bloomberg Administration puts on new office space to rejuvenate Midtown East. “New Class A office space will help, but it will not ensure a vibrant and successful business district,” the group asserts in a report that offers various recommendations to the city, “A Bold Vision for the Future in East Midtown.” “New York’s success is built upon the historic commitments of previous generations – building Grand Central, creating some of the world’s most well-known parks, open spaces and streets, and protecting and enhancing these treasures along the way.”
The city should encourage a diversity of uses and businesses, ensure a better use of the street-level spaces; explore new ways to provide incentives for rehabbing distinctive older buildings; and be more ambitious in investing in public transit, the MAS says.
Are They Landmarks or Relics?
A reading of the plans and quotes of the various parties – from the city Planning Department to the Real Estate Board of New York to the civic groups and leaders – show just how differently they view the neighborhood and especially its buildings. The vision that wins out could foretell which buildings are demolished and which are saved and possibly rehabilitated and repurposed. Landmark status already protects Grand Central Terminal, the Waldorf-Astoria, the Lever House, and 29 other buildings in the area the city has targeted for rezoning.
Still, many others are unprotected and likely vulnerable, should city planners’ rezoning go through as the DCP currently proposes. They include the Pershing Square Building, 125 Park Ave; the Yale Club, 50 Vanderbilt Ave.; the Graybar Building, 420 Lexington Ave.; the InterContinental New York Barclay (originally the Barclay Hotel), 111 East 48th St.; the Swedish Seaman’s Church (former New York Bible Society), 5 East 48th St.; and 661 Vanderbilt Ave. (former Babies’ Hospital). The Municipal Art Society originally identified 29 sites of historic or architectural merit, and of these, has proposed to the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission that it bestow landmark status on 17 buildings.
“There needs to be new construction in Midtown. There is no question that that is important,” Ronda Wist of the Municipal Arts Society told NY1 earlier this year. “But equally important, and at the same time, there needs to be recognition that historic buildings are important and must be preserved.” Wist added, “What’s so terrific about Midtown now is that there are new buildings and old buildings. There are large glass and steel buildings, smaller masonry buildings, lots of different office types, lots of different hotels, and we’d like to see that vibrant mix preserved.”
However, a coalition of business, real estate, and labor groups contends that further landmarking efforts will stunt progress. “Many of the proposed landmarks are on sites that have been identified as best for new development or are in locations that would undermine the potential created by new development,” the coalition, Midtown21C, said in its report on Midtown East, called “Icons, Placeholders, and Leftovers.” The coalition includes the Real Estate Board, New York Building Congress, Manhattan Chamber of Commerce, Hotel Trades Council, and others. “In this context, inappropriate use of landmarking runs the risk of slowing or stopping the process of continuous transformation that has created Midtown East and provided a great source of real estate and wage taxes for the City.”
The Pershing Square Building
The brickwork and decorative details of the Pershing Square Building
Consider, for example, the differing views about the Pershing Square Building, which lies directly across from Grand Central Terminal at 125 Park Ave. (100 East 42nd St.). It is likely a potential development site and thus a vulnerable building. John Sloan, who was the architect for various significant New York buildings, designed this 1923 Romanesque Revival skyscraper, a richly textured buff and brown structure of brick and terra cotta with three-story decorative arches at its base.
Is it worthy of protection or just outdated? The MAS has requested that the Landmarks Preservation Commission consider designating it as a landmark (and the LPC has agreed that it merits consideration). But the Midtown21C report calls it a “holdover” of the earlier Beaux Arts era: “The cubic Beaux Arts design was old-fashioned even before it was finished – an unpardonable sin in up-to-date Manhattan.” The upcoming deliberations could well determine whether it will ultimately survive.
Time To Weigh In
As for what is next, critics of the Department of City Planning’s proposal are at least expressing relief that the city is beginning to respond to their apprehensions. They are welcoming opportunities to better shape Midtown East’s future. Still, the civic groups and local officials remain concerned that the city’s path to rezoning will not be accompanied by enough specifics; the necessary improvements to the transit and pedestrian infrastructure before massive new development takes place; a diverse mix of development and services that will sustain the neighborhood’s quality of life; and sufficient care about designating and protecting New York’s landmarks.
Citizens have various opportunities to weigh in on the rezoning proposal in the next few months, as it goes through New York’s public land-use review process. The New York City Planning Commission certified the rezoning proposal in late April, which means that the Community Boards and Planning Commission will hold public hearings and develop their recommendations before it goes to City Council.
In addition, another opportunity to express opinions and offer input about Midtown East will come through the development of a “Public Realm Vision Plan” with the DCP’s appointment of a consultants’ team. The team includes the Jonathan Rose Company, Gehl Architects, and Skanska. This team will lead three public workshops during the spring and summer.
The shape and character of a large swath of the East Side of Midtown Manhattan likely will depend on how much these various voices are heard and how much they coalesce into a vision that places civic improvement and livability above narrow or privileged interests. One can look back at the concept and the creation of Grand Central Terminal – which this year marks its 100th year – and see how real vision materialized among disparate groups. It will be interesting and important to see whether some enlightenment and long-term thinking emerges about the neighborhood surrounding Grand Central this time around.