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Midtown East Rezoning Could Pay for Transit Improvements, Officials Say

By Mathew Katz | October 11, 2012 7:59am

MIDTOWN — That slog up the stairs after getting off the subway at Grand Central Station could eventually be a thing of the past — if developers agree to build massive new skyscrapers in East Midtown, officials said.

On Wednesday, MTA and City Planning officials presented a plan to ease crowding in busy subway stations around the area, which the city is proposing the rezone, allowing real estate developers to build huge new office towers.

The plan would add new escalators, stairs, passageways and space on platforms at some of the city’s most congested subway stations, officials said at a meeting to discuss the proposal.

The changes would, in effect, be paid for by developers, who would need to put cash into a "district improvement fund" in order to build taller buildings under the rezoning plan, officials noted.

The improvements, estimated to cost between $340 million and $465 million, would focus on the train lines at Grand Central, the Fifth Avenue/53rd Street Station and Lexington Avenue/53rd Street Station, allowing the cash-strapped MTA to bypass its budget to fix up the stations.

The district improvement fund could only be tapped for local pedestrian and transit improvements in the Midtown East area, essentially giving the MTA a fund outside their budget to make the much-needed improvements — but only if development happens.

“We’re constantly having to prioritize and decide where to spend scarce resources,” said the MTA’s Fredericka Cuenca. “You have a separate funding stream focused on making improvements on the Midtown East stations.”

The goal, the MTA said, would be to ease congestion at the major stations by creating more space and better ways to move to and from the platform.

By eliminating crowding at Grand Central, in particular, the improvements would help the entirety of the Lexington Avenue subway line, officials said.

“At platform level itself, there’s very bad congestion to the extent that it impacts the ability to move trains along,” said David Haase, the MTA’s Director of Station Operations Planning.

“We think station improvements can help the whole line work better.”

Grand Central in particular will soon see significantly more riders, as the East Side Access project will bring in more commuters from Long Island and extend the 7 Train to the West Side.

But some members of Community Board 5 took issue with the plan, saying it puts funding for much-needed transit improvements in the hands of developers. If the development doesn’t happen, nor would the station upgrades, they argued.

“What we’re saying now is if no development occurs in 2030, we’ll be in bad shape,” said Raju Mann, a board member who said that the city should look at creating a tax in the area to help pay for the improvements.

“If we are trying to create a great commercial district, why can’t we find alternate revenue streams to fund the transit that needs to be made?”

City officials said a tax was unfeasible, but did add that the transit improvements would likely be ready before the new buildings open up, allowing stations to absorb thousands of new commuters.

Developers will have to pay into the improvement fund when they get their building permit — typically years before a new skyscraper comes online. The funding would also be paid out in separate chunks as developers obtain building permits, meaning the projects would likely be completely piece by piece.

City officials hope to formalize the rezoning plan by early 2013, though if approved, it would not go into effect for another five years.