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3 Religious Institutions Could Cash In on Changes to East Midtown Rezoning

By Alan Neuhauser | July 19, 2013 10:20am
 The Department of City Planning has proposed rezoning 73 blocks around Grand Central Terminal in East Midtown to allow newer and larger skyscrapers.
City Seeking to Rezone 73-Block Section of East Midtown
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MIDTOWN — Good heavens!

Three of the city's biggest religious landmarks could earn as much as $1.1 billion under new changes to the city's controversial East Midtown rezoning proposal.

The modifications, unveiled at a press briefing Thursday, would allow St. Patrick's Cathedral, St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church, and Central Synagogue, which together own millions of square feet in air-rights, to sell those rights to developers seeking to build skyscrapers not immediately adjacent to the religious buildings, a stipulation normally required by city law.

"We're very pleased with the development and very grateful," said Joseph Zwilling, director of communications for the Archdiocese of New York.

The changes would also loosen other restrictions, allowing developers to more easily erect bigger skyscrapers, incorporate residential apartments into new office towers, and build restaurants and other commercial amenities on residential rooftops.

The changes are all part of an "A-text amendment," a proposed revision of the city's application to rezone 73 blocks around Grand Central Terminal to allow broader and taller buildings. The amendment, introduced by the Department of City Planning, marks the rezoning plan's first modifications to since it entered the city's months-long land-use review procedure in April.

Strongly supported by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, both the amendment and the rezoning plan must go before the City Planning Commission at a hearing Aug. 7.

"They actually respond to many concerns that we've heard," Edith Hsu-Chen, Manhattan director for the Department of City Planning, said of the changes. "This expands the scope of the environmental review."

The rezoning proposal, fast-tracked by Bloomberg, has drawn criticism from local leaders and officials since it was formally introduced this spring. Notably, eight of Manhattan's 12 community boards oppose the proposal, criticizing its timing and its scheme for funding transit improvements.

Neither of those concerns, however, were addressed in Thursday's amendments.

"Although some of these changes represent modest improvements, we're very disappointed that after months of discussion the city fails to recognize that we can't create a stronger Midtown if we don't reliably invest in the transit system, predictably fund public space improvements, protect landmark worthy buildings, and make sure that New Yorkers have a real voice in the future of their skyline," Lola Finkelstein, chairwoman of a multi-board task force comprised of Community Boards 1, 4, 5 and 6, said in a statement. "These changes may satisfy some special interests but unfortunately ignore the broader public interest."

Those special interests include not just developers, but three of Manhattan's largest religious congregations, which could win paydays under the A-text amendment.

Ringed by landowners unable or unwilling to buy and develop air rights, St. Pat's, St. Bart's and Central Synagogue have been forced to sit on 2 million square feet of air rights — together valued somewhere between $400 million and $1.1 billion.

The Department of City Planning's proposed modification, though, would create a special "subarea" for transferring those air rights: a 25-block district, within which buildings could sell air rights to one another.

Local leaders and officials, while welcoming the modifications, emphasized that the city will need to go much further to win approval for the rezoning plan.

"We appreciate that the administration continues to modify the proposal, but some of the biggest questions remain unresolved," Councilman Dan Garodnick said. "There's been a lot of discussion on the speed of this proposal, and we are not going to allow this proposal to pass unless they get it right."

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, who declined to comment, has until July 31 to issue his recommendation on the East Midtown rezoning proposal before it heads to the City Planning Commission. Once the commission renders a decision, the plan goes before the City Council's Land Use Committee, and then the full City Council.