MIDTOWN — The plan to rezone a section of East Midtown, which would give developers the right to build greater density in exchange for contributing to public improvement projects, will likely get approval within a year, according to the city’s top planning official.
Department of City Planning chief Carl Weisbrod told a gathering of developers and construction industry honchos on Friday that the proposed rezoning will likely get final approval next summer, paving the way for a major redevelopment of the area.
“We still have a few open issues but our proposal should be approved by the middle of next year,” Weisbrod said at a meeting of the New York Building Congress in Midtown on Sept. 30.
A rezoning of a swath of Midtown has been proposed before — driven by the city's aim to modernize office buildings near Grand Central — but was withdrawn after elected officials, including Councilman Dan Garodnick, who's worked closely with both proposals, opposed that plan, saying it lacked transparency regarding exactly what public improvement projects would be funded through deals with developers.
In the current iteration, developers would be allowed to build offices at a greater density in exchange for completing transit or public improvements that would be pre-identified in a catalog directly written into the area's rezoning.
Another change involves giving developers the opportunity to buy air rights from landmarked sites, creating funds that would then be invested directly into the upkeep and preservation of those sites.
“I think we are on a much better path today,” Garodnick said. “The result of the pre-identified list is that it guarantees benefits to transit riders and gives commuters and developers alike a level of predictability because we will have defined the public improvement up-front.”
The rezoning would affect a 73-block slice of East Midtown, bound roughly by 57th Street to the north, 39th Street to the south, Third Avenue to the east, and Madison Avenue to the west.
DCP is expected to finalize its proposal by the end of this year, at which point it will enter the city's Uniform Land Use Review Process (ULURP). During this process, the community will be given the opportunity to weigh in.
Here’s a primer on what the rezoning looks like at the moment:
►What will the rezoning do?
The city's goal is to rezone the area to allow developers to build taller buildings, as long as they make a set of required contributions to the public, which would take several forms: giving money for transit improvements in the area, buying development rights from adjacent landmarks, or by creating public plazas on their properties.
The final rezoning proposal will include a list of pre-identified transit improvement projects so that the public knows exactly what developers will be pitching in on in exchange for height bonuses, according to Garodnick.
The rezoning proposal also gives the owners of landmarked properties in the new subdistrict the ability to sell air rights, also called development rights, to developers of adjacent properties. According to the proposal, this will help preserve landmarks by giving their caretakers an infusion of cash, and would designate a portion of the sale to the city to add to a public improvement fund.
Another allowance in the rezoning proposal is the ability for owners of “overbuilt” properties — older buildings that are denser than current zoning would allow — to rebuild on their sites to the dimensions of the current building.
Currently, developers have little incentive to knock down outdated buildings as any new project would provide less income, since they'd have to rebuild at a lower density to abide by current zoning rules.
“If you are looking to build bigger you would simply look to the zoning amendment and see what improvements you would need to do in order to secure additional development rights,” he said.
To be clear, this does not mean that every property owner in the new district will be able to tear down their building and put up a skyscraper. New buildings must be located on a wide street or avenue, dedicate no more than 20 percent of the building’s floor area for residential use, and comply with environmental performance standards.
The greatest density would be permitted to properties adjacent to Grand Central Terminal, and the allowed floor-area-ratio (a metric used to calculate density) will be reduced the farther away from the major transit hub.
Based on these qualifications, DCP has identified 16 sites that could potentially sprout new towers in the next 20 years, leading to the creation of 6.6 million additional square feet of office space, according to its proposal.
The areas in red are sites the Department of City Planning has identified as likely to be redeveloped under the rezoning. The blue indicates properties that could be redeveloped, but isn't as likely for technical reasons, such as multiple ownerships or irregular shapes.
The area of Midtown in question is incredibly densely built, and according to DCP, the average age of buildings in the area is 75 years old, with more than 60 percent of the building stock built 50 years ago or more.
The city is concerned that Midtown’s older office space will become less attractive to tenants, which DCP says makes the "premier job center" less competitive compared to other neighborhoods.
Proponents of the rezoning say that allowing for greater height in the district would give developers leeway to build modern office buildings and push the area’s office stock into the current century.
Midtown has seen something similar recently in the rezoning of the Vanderbilt Corridor, a stretch of Vanderbilt Place next to Grand Central Terminal. As part of that rezoning, developer SL Green agreed to pay out $220 million for improvements at Grand Central in exchange for being allowed to build its massive One Vanderbilt tower higher than current zoning allows. (The Vanderbilt Corridor would be subsumed by the Special Midtown District and be subject to the new zoning regulations).
Unlike the Vanderbilt Corridor, which required a special permit, developers in the East Midtown Subdistrict would be able to get as-of-right bonuses with the new rezoning.
►Hasn't this happened before?
The Bloomberg Administration in 2012 put forward a similar rezoning proposal, and it got as far as being approved by the Department of City Planning.
Like the current plan, Bloomberg’s rezoning would have tied height bonuses to contributions from developers, and would have put money into a public improvement fund through the sale of air rights. Bloomberg withdrew the plan in In 2013.
There are several critical differences between the current plan and Bloomberg's plan, which ultimately lost support from key people like Councilman Dan Garodnick and Council Speaker Christine Quinn to withdraw their support.
Under the new plan, developers would buy air rights from landmarks, with a cut of the deal going to the city. Previously, under Bloomberg’s plan, the city would have sold air rights directly to the developers, which Garodnick said did not do enough to help landmarks preserve their buildings.
Sara Morell, a spokeswoman representing several landmarks in the area including Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, any rezoning of the area must “provide significant relief from the high cost of maintaining landmark buildings and to assist in their overall preservation.”
►How did we get to the current plan?
Renewed negotiations for East Midtown rezoning began in September 2014, with the first meeting of the East Midtown Steering Committee, a body of local community boards, business and real-estate officials, and civic and labor groups.
That committee, co-chaired by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Garodnick, who represents much of the area, met 19 times to go over the issues, study previous plans that didn’t pan out, and speak with experts. In October of 2015, the committee released its final report, a list of recommendations to the Department of City Planning, the agency responsible for developing the actual rezoning proposal.
The Department of City Planning has put forward a draft scoping document, which outlines an initial proposal for the rezoning, and public comment on that proposal just ended.
Right now, DCP is reviewing the testimony it collected, and is also undertaking an environmental impact study, which will assess the how the rezoning might affect local infrastructure.
►What remains to be figured out?
The Department of City Planning still has to hammer out exactly how the transfer of air rights from landmarks will work, which includes figuring out whether to set a minimum price and how much of a cut of those deals the city will take for the public improvement fund.
Many other details remain unclear, including the exact borders of the subdistrict, the list of pre-identified transit improvement projects, and the amount added height bonuses awarded to developers who build public plazas on their properties.