East Midtown Rezoning- Statement to City Planning

Statement of the Historic Districts Council

City Planning Commission

August 7, 2013

The Historic Districts Council is the advocate for New York City’s designated historic districts, individual landmarks and structures meriting preservation.  The Council is dedicated to preserving the integrity of New York City’s Landmarks Law and to furthering the preservation ethic. The East Midtown Rezoning proposal is definitely a dynamic one, and one which could transform an iconic section of Manhattan.  Vibrant change is part of New York’s character and should be encouraged appropriately.  In this case, we question both the cost of such change and wonder if its possible benefits will actually emerge.

While we have heard from City Planning presenters numerous times that this plan will only produce a few buildings of the tallest allowable heights, it is effectively an upzoning of the entire area.  This should not be downplayed.  Any block where enough street frontage is assembled could host a building far taller than what exists.  The decrease in street frontage necessary from the original proposal would, of course, increase the ease and likelihood of these massive buildings.  The inclusion of special provisions for retaining non-complying floor area and allowing residential use would further spur new construction as these uses are more profitable than the office space that this proposal claims the city needs so badly.

The District Improvement Bonus, Fund, and Committee are central pieces of the proposed rezoning.  HDC is concerned about the public’s role in this process.  As proposed, the DIF is to be overseen by five mayoral appointees who will decide which projects happen in what order.  A more varied composition including a representative of the community board would make more sense.  While it is good to know that all meetings of the committee will be open to the public, there is no mention of how or even if the public can contribute to the meeting.  Rather than allowing the committee to adopt their own procedures, including one for public comment regarding the District Improvement project list, these issues should be decided now.   Given the adverse impact of some of these new buildings and the potentially important role the DIF could play in mitigating them, it would be wrong to leave the affected community out of the planning. Furthermore, we are unclear as to the ability of New York City to implement changes to MTA property. We understand that things such as subways entrances can be created, but this will not substantially alleviate an over-burdened IRT transit line. The City is selling the sky for a promise that the MTA will do something to help the public underground.  This is not a good bargain.  Finally, Mayor Bloomberg recently announced that improvements will happen before the DIF is funded. We are pleased by this turn of events – as transit improvements at this site in particular are an urban necessity – but this action calls to question the basic purpose of selling development rights all together. What and who are they really benefitting?

While we are happy to see the possibility of selling air rights extended to all of the area’s landmarks,  HDC is also concerned that the use of DIB first, and air rights from individual landmarks only after that bonus is used up, could hurt individual landmarks by taking away a possible source for preservation funding.  After all, the preservation of these landmarks which give such character to East Midtown is certainly a district improvement, as contributing as any DIF project.

HDC has concerns regarding the Vanderbilt Avenue design rules, particularly the requirement for transparency of 70% of the streetwall, a height of 60 feet.   It seems unnecessary to require more than the 50% of the ground floor already stipulated elsewhere in this plan.  The signage and merchandising which would then become the streetwall would not enliven the public open space envisioned for Vanderbilt Avenue, it would only commercialize it.  Attractive, well-designed architecture with interesting bases – not just transparent glass – would be more of a contribution to the streetscape.

HDC, along with our sister organizations the Municipal Art Society and the New York Landmarks Conservancy, support the designation of buildings deemed eligible by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.  Our groups’ lists and that of LPC have some overlap and some differences, but they only go to show the wealth and diversity of historic and architectural treasures still unprotected in this area.  It is important that we make sure the LPC recommendations do not just become a list that we check off as places are lost – Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hoffman Auto Showroom and the American Encaustic Tile Building have already been irreparably damaged.  Instead, it must be a guiding document that works along with this rezoning to help create the best East Midtown possible.  Community boards, elected officials, and the public must all urge LPC to move forward with calendaring these important pieces of midtown before it is too late.

Finally, we have to ask, as so many others have, what’s the rush?  The sunrise provision shows that this massive rezoning is not immediately necessary.  Why not wait a few years, see how developments at the World Trade Center, Hudson Yards, Long Island City, and elsewhere have impacted the city’s various needs, and then reexamine what is truly best for East Midtown and New York City?