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New Zoning Regulations Could Bring More Skyscrapers to Midtown East

By Mary Johnson | July 13, 2012 4:16pm
The Department of City Planning has identified the area immediately surrounding Grand Central Terminal as an ideal location for new iconic buildings that could rival the Chrysler Building in height.
The Department of City Planning has identified the area immediately surrounding Grand Central Terminal as an ideal location for new iconic buildings that could rival the Chrysler Building in height.
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MIDTOWN EAST — Office buildings in Midtown East are about to get bigger.

The Department of City Planning unveiled plans this week for new zoning regulations in the area that extends from roughly East 39th to East 57th streets between Second and Fifth avenues.

The plans identified key areas in that stretch of Manhattan that would be ideal locations for new, iconic buildings that could rival the Chrysler Building in height. They also proposed a controversial extension of the Midtown East commercial district to include parts of Turtle Bay, from East 42nd and East 45th streets between Second and Third avenues.

“The purpose of this study is to ensure the continued competitiveness of East Midtown as a world-class, premiere office district.” Edith Hsu-Chen, director of City Planning’s Manhattan office, told members of Community Board 6 at a meeting Thursday night.

“There’s been virtually no growth in the last five years,” Hsu-Chen added. “We can remove the regulatory impediments, and not only that, we can proactively induce growth through a regulatory framework.”

During the presentation, representatives from City Planning outlined the existing problems facing Midtown East, most notably an excess of older buildings that are less attractive for potential tenants.

Eighty percent of the buildings in the area are more than 50 years old and are constantly undergoing renovations to maintain their desirability in the current market environment, where open, modern floor plans have become coveted, said Frank Ruchala, a representative from City Planning.

Plus, Ruchala added, those older buildings tend to have higher vacancy rates than some of the district’s newer counterparts.

To maintain the viability of Midtown East as a business destination, Ruchala said the city has proposed allowing qualifying buildings to purchase the rights to build higher.

The area immediately surrounding Grand Central Terminal would be given the tallest zoning allowances, Ruchala said. Sites in that area that meet certain requirements, such as having full avenue-side frontage, could rise as tall as the 51-story building at 1 Bryant Park.

A little further away from Grand Central, buildings could rival the 47-story structure at 383 Madison Avenue, Ruchala said.

In addition, special permits will be granted for buildings that could become new icons of the New York City skyline, Ruchala said, and could be approved to rival the 77- story Chrysler Building in height.

“This is the place that invented the skyscraper,” Ruchala said. “We want to make sure there are opportunities for those kinds of buildings again here.”

Further from that Grand Central core, the zoning allowances decrease, and several areas have been completely excluded from the new proposal, including Fifth Avenue and the predominantly residential area in the East 50s between Lexington and Third, Ruchala explained.

But City Planning would like one area to be added to the district, namely the stretch from East 42nd to 45th streets between Second and Third avenues in Turtle Bay. And that proposal rankled several people who attended Thursday's Community Board 6 meeting.

Bruce Silberblatt, a vice president with the Turtle Bay Association, likened the rezoning process to “performing open heart surgery on the heart of Manhattan,” noting that such delicate work could have dire consequences if not done right.

“Our main concern, of course, is the incursion, I call it, across Third Avenue and closer to Second Avenue,” Silberblatt said. “I don’t want any incursion of Midtown any further than it is.”

Other residents worried that the East Side's already overcrowded transit system would worsen with an influx of workers in newer, taller office towers.

“The effect is going to ripple out all over the place,” said Kathy Thompson, founder of the East Side Community Alliance.

For developers who set their sights on the areas marked for new zoning allowances, building tall will come at a price.

Builders will be required to pay a so-called district improvement bonus or to purchase air rights from surrounding landmark buildings in order to build as tall as the new zoning changes will allow, Ruchala explained.

The pricing for that permission has not been determined, but whatever the amount, the funds have already been earmarked to finance improvements to pedestrian areas and transit systems and the creation of new public spaces.

Specifically, Ruchala said City Planning has identified Vanderbilt Avenue, which runs alongside Grand Central Terminal, as an ideal location for a new pedestrian plaza.

Several people at the meeting questioned whether any money paid to build taller would actually go toward pedestrian improvements as promised.

But Hsu-Chen promised the funds would be strictly guarded for their intended purpose.

“It’s inviolate,” she said. “This money cannot go into the general fund. This money must be allocated to pedestrian and transportation improvements in the area.”

Hsu-Chen said the ULURP process — the city’s public review process for land use projects — won’t begin until early 2013, and developers will not be able to purchase building permits under the zoning regulations until five years from now.