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Revised East Midtown Rezoning Plan Scaled Back, Adds Green Safeguards

By Mathew Katz | January 30, 2013 1:34pm

MIDTOWN — City planners unveiled a revised East Midtown rezoning plan Tuesday that excludes a small segment of streets from the proposal and requires developers to chip in to a fund for transit improvements — before they can get a building permit.

The updated proposal, disclosed at a Community Board 5 meeting, also forces builders to adhere to strict, performance-based energy efficiency requirements, according to the Department of City Planning.

Still, the changes appeared to do little to calm critics of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's fast-tracked plan to rezone a swath of Midtown near Grand Central Terminal to allow buildings to soar far higher than currently permitted.

City planners argue the zoning overhaul would create new high-tech office space and allow Midtown to remain competitive, but residents said it remains dangerously short on details about how it will fund all the transit perks that have been promised.

"It just feels like a wish list," said Raju Mann, a member of Community Board 5.

Bloomberg is hoping to rezone a section of Midtown stretching roughly from East 42nd to East 57th streets, between Third and Fifth avenues. In exchange for the right to erect taller buildings, developers would be required to pay into a so-called District Improvement Fund to cover transportation and pedestrian projects.

Based on community feedback, streets east of Third Avenue and north of East 43rd Street have been removed from the rezoning proposal, officials said.

Developers also would have to pay into the District Improvement Fund before getting building permits — instead of when they received the permits, city officials said. Critics said that's still no guarantee the cash needed to improve the area would be raised, or that enough developers will even decide to bite.

"We don't know when development is going to occur and we need these improvements now," Mann said.

The improvements eyed include new escalators, stairs, passageways and space on platforms at some of Midtown's most congested subway stations. The upgrades, 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.

Another top priority would be turning much of Vanderbilt Avenue into a pedestrian haven, with planning officials hoping to create an attractive promenade. 

"We see Vanderbilt as a beautiful, distinguished gateway to the city," said Edith Hsu-Chen, director of the Department of City Planning's Manhattan office.

Each builders' improvement fund fee would be based on square footage, but officials have yet to set a rate.

Community members at Tuesday's meeting said that number is critical. Set it too high, and developers will be hesitant to build, they said. Set it too low, and it won't cover the cost of the much-needed improvements.

A committee selected by the mayor would decide which projects in the Midtown East area would get funding, with priority going to the Grand Central subway and Vanderbilt Avenue plans, officials said.

One controversial element was not changed from the original plan — the sale of air rights over landmarked structures.

A representative of the Archdiocese of New York reiterated the church's position Tuesday night that it wants the rezoning plan altered further to give St. Patrick's Cathedral the right to sell its air rights to developers anywhere in the zone.

Many people at the meeting said they supported the project's goal of making Midtown more attractive to businesses, but they offered a familiar critique: The proposal is being rushed along too quickly in order for it to pass before Bloomberg leaves office in December.

The department will give another detailed presentation on the rezoning proposal next month, and plans for it to be certified by the City Planning Commission in March.

"This is a fast-paced proposal that has serious problems," CB5 member Eric Stern said.

Stern said he had crunched his own numbers, and said they show that all of the District Improvement Fund's transit projects may not be funded before they're needed as the area gets much busier. 

"You might not get every improvement," Hsu-Chen agreed. "But many of these are essential to having the thriving East Midtown we all want to see."