MIDTOWN — Local leaders and elected officials are railing against the timing of a study of how to overhaul East Midtown's streetscapes, saying the plan may ultimately offer too little, too late.
The study was announced Monday, when the city's Planning and Transportation departments declared that they will issue an “East Midtown Rezoning Vision Plan" this fall. Three architecture and construction firms will develop the plan, exploring how best to improve bench seating, green space, traffic flow, and other public-realm elements in the rezoning area, a 73-block section around Grand Central Terminal that could become home to broader and taller high-rises.
Officials acknowledge the vision plan is "a crucial piece of this proposed rezoning," as Councilman Dan Garodnick said in a statement Monday, but also expressed frustration with the Planning Department, arguing the vision plan should have been part of the initial East Midtown rezoning application that the city certified in April.
"This is an important part of what we need to do here, but it would have been much more helpful to have it much sooner," Garodnick said.
For months, Garodnick and others have been calling on the city to explain how it plans to prepare East Midtown for the wave of development — and the influx of residents and workers — that is expected to follow the rezoning process. They point out that although the rezoning application would establish a developer-supported District Improvement Fund to upgrade area streetscapes and infrastructure, the exact nature of those upgrades has remained vague.
“We do not have a plan to address the immediate public realm and infrastructure needs in the Grand Central area,” Garodnick said.
Moreover, he and others argue, the vision plan announced Monday throws the entire rezoning process out of sync.
The Department of City Planning formally certified its East Midtown rezoning application April 22, which launched the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, or ULURP. The rezoning application must follow a strict timetable, first going before Community Boards 5 and 6, then the Borough President's Office, the Department of City Planning and the City Council every 60 days.
Only the City Planning and City Council's recommendations are binding.
The vision plan, however, will not be released until the fall, according to the Department of City Planning, long after all but one agency will have already reviewed the rezoning application.
"We're disappointed that after months of calling for a careful study of the public realm in East Midtown, we will not have the results of this study until the fall, after the Community Boards, the Borough Board, the Borough President and even the City Planning Commission all will have weighed in," Community Board 5 chairwoman Vikki Barbero said in a statement.
The vision plan's timing may even indict the rezoning application as a whole. By commissioning a vision plan, the city has acknowledged the rezoning application certified last month was not as comprehensive as it needed to be, Barbero and Garodnick said.
"When the [rezoning] application was certified, it was certified as complete," Barbero said. "Evidently, it was not complete."
Garodnick, who stopped just short of calling the application incomplete, nevertheless offered a similar view.
"This is a fundamental part of what we need to consider," he said.
City Planning, though, insisted the rezoning application "was complete and ready for review."
"The zoning proposal was certified and ready to go," said Edith Hsu-Chen, the department's Manhattan director. "What we're doing with the vision plan — it's not a requirement of zoning — goes above and beyond. It's going to serve as a guide for future decisions."
She added that streetscape and infrastructure improvements have been left intentionally vague in the zoning application "to maintain flexibility for how money is spent in the future. It's premature for any of us to say how money may be spent in the future when the needs may change."
Community Boards 5 and 6 will offer their recommendations on the rezoning application by the end of next month.
The three companies developing the visioning plan, Jonathan Rose Companies, Gehl Architecture, and Skanska, which the city hired for $100,000 total, the Department of Transportation said, have pledged to hold three public workshops. Those dates have not yet been announced.