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Council Committee OKs Zoning Plan to Bring Life to the Fur District

By Jill Colvin | September 15, 2011 5:51pm
Edison intends to turn this parking lot into a residential tower.
Edison intends to turn this parking lot into a residential tower.
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Department of City Planning

MIDTOWN — The City Council’s zoning committee has paved the way for Edison Properties to replace a Midtown parking lot with a new 400-unit residential building — part of a zoning rule change intended to transform the former “Fur District” south of Penn Station into a bustling, mixed-use neighborhood.

The committee voted unanimously Thursday to approve the creation of the new “M1-6D” zoning type, which would first be applied to West 28th, 29th and 30th streets between Seventh and Eighth avenues.

The new rules would open the door to new residential development in the former manufacturing hub, which is currently dominated by a smattering of small warehouses, remaining fur retailers and numerous parking lots, with few retail options and little street life after business hours.

“The streets are relatively desolate... especially at night,” Adam Wolff, deputy director of the Department of City Planning’s Manhattan office, told council members Thursday, describing numerous parking lots and a surge in new hotels with designs that are “really out of context" with the existing street.

Under the new rules, new residential units would be allowed, including a new 400-unit building, which Edison Properties wants to build at 249 W. 28th St. in place of a parking lot. Eighty-two of the new units would be reserved for affordable housing, boosting the area’s stock “considerably,” Edison Properties’ Douglas Woodward said.

The property is one of seven potential development sites identified by the city, which estimates that the bulk of transformation would happen around 2019.

But the new rules also include tight regulations intended to preserve existing commercial space and less expensive office space.

Under the new rules, any commercial buildings with 40,000 feet or more of commercial space would be required to maintain as much commercial and office space as they have today, even if they decide to rebuild.

The department had originally planned to set that threshold at 50,000, but revised its plan after members of Community Board 5 and the Manhattan borough president raised concerns that threshold was too high.

Community Board 5 Land Use and Zoning Committee Chair Kate McDonough praised the city for accommodating the committee's “long-held and long-voiced concerns” about the “disturbing” loss of affordable office space in the neighborhood.

Nonetheless, she said the board is still extremely concerned about the lack of schools and other community services in the neighborhood and wonders how already overcrowded classrooms will cope with the influx of new families the zoning change is expected to bring.

“It will still add residential development to an area where school and other services are… overburdened,” she said.

Queens Councilman Leroy Comrie also voiced concern about the fact that the new Edison property will eliminate parking spaces in the area, which is within walking distance from Madison Square Garden and major transit hubs. The proposed development would have 325 parking spots, about 50 fewer than the existing above-ground lot.

“It doesn’t make sense to me. I think it’s bad city planning,” he said of the city’s willingness to accept proposals that reduce the amount of parking in Midtown, which he argued is crucial for people from areas like south Queens and Westchester, where public transit might not be an option.

“They can ride bikes after they get here,” he said, taking a knock at the city’s new bike-sharing plan.

While the city has no immediate plans to rezone other neighborhoods as M1-6D, Wolff said that could be considered down the line in other former manufacturing areas around Midtown that could benefit from new housing and street life.

The full council is expected to approve the zoning change at its stated meeting later this month.