By: Carol Sigmond
If you’re like most New Yorkers, you consider zoning a set of regulations and policies that are honored only in the breach, if at all. The only result of zoning seems to be to drive up density to the point that sidewalks are unable to handle the pedestrian traffic, schools are overcrowded, traffic is at a constant standstill and subway cars are overloaded and unable to clear the platforms. City Planning is about to inflict a new round of zoning in what is known as the East Midtown office district. Fasten your seat belts!
The area involved is bounded by East 39th Street to the south, Fifth Avenue to the west, 57th Street to the north and Second and Third avenues to the east. Grand Central Station is near the center of the so call East Midtown office district. At present, East Midtown has 70 million square feet of office space and 200,000 office workers.
The area is serviced by one subway line, the 4, 5 and 6. The so called “East Side Access,” which will bring LIRR passengers directly into Grand Central Station, is due to be completed in 2019. The new Second Avenue subway line skirts near the northern edge of East Midtown. City Planning believes this will reduce the crowding on the 4, 5 and 6. That remains to be seen, particularly as the MTA is reducing Upper East Side bus service now that the Second Avenue subway is open.
City Planning claims that, notwithstanding healthy occupancy rates and commercial rents, East Midtown has challenges, including aging office building stock, zoning density limitations and overcrowded sidewalks and transit services. City Planning maintains that all the available floor to area ration (FAR) in the Grand Central area is not being developed, due to excessive limitations on development.
City Planning has a legitimate concern. There is no special value in older office buildings, which abound in the East Midtown area. Businesses are seeking modern spaces with open floor plans, good natural light, adequate power and power distribution for the many electronic devices used by employees and nice amenities for all concerned.
The proposed solution is drastic. City Planning proposes to increase the zoning density in East Midtown from 15 FAR to 24 FAR, and along Park Avenue from 15 FAR to 21 FAR, representing a density increase of approximately 40 percent and 30 percent, respectively. This would be coupled with requirements for wider sidewalks on Madison Avenue and Lexington Avenue as well as on the numbered streets from 43rd to 47th streets between Vanderbilt and Madison avenues; additional easements for access to Grand Central Station; wider sidewalks on Park Avenue and better lighting on all the newly widened sidewalks.
Advocates of this proposal hope it will spur additional development of new office space in or about Grand Central, improve access to Grand Central Station and provide pedestrian flow to retail spaces in the Grand Central neighborhood. Opponents are justifiably concerned that there will be no amenities, just more crowding in already crowded sidewalks, subways and roads.
There has been no real study of the impacts of the East Side Access or the Second Avenue subway on the transit situation at Grand Central Station. East Side Access does not yet exist. Anyone who uses the 4, 5 and 6 at Grand Central knows that for most of the day that station is crowded, if not overcrowded. The S and 7 lines are busy, but do not carry the crush loads found on the 4, 5 and 6 lines. The expected improvement of the 4, 5 and 6 overcrowding due to the Second Avenue subway has not been proved empirically. Given the recent massive overbuilding on the Upper East Side, the new subway line may make little difference in the transit situation, particularly as the bus service is cut back on Second Avenue. However, as I write this, it has been open a mere five days.
Whether the proposed density increase is actually necessary is not fully apparent. The building at 425 Park Avenue is in the midst of a three-year reconstruction that will modernize a lower, wider building into a tower with more floors and smaller, modern floor plates. We will be watching to see if City Planning and the Departments of Buildings and Transportation actually deliver on the improved sidewalks and transit programs as promised.