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Architects serve up 21st century Grand Central

By Sarah Trefethen

Grand Central rendering

It will take updates to both Midtown East’s office buildings and the surrounding areas to keep major office tenants in the neighborhood long term, according to city planners.

“We’ve been studying this area for a long time now, and we’ve come to the diagnosis that this district is in trouble” over the long term, Edith Hsu-Chen, director of the Manhattan Office for New York City’s Department of City Planning, said at the Municipal Arts Society’s Summit for New York City last week.

Amanda Burden, also speaking at the summit, described the area as “a place of cache and character,” and noted that its large population of premier tenants makes if a major tax base for the city.

But office stock in the area, where new construction is constrained by a 1982 zoning resolution intended to shift development to other parts of the city, is aging rapidly.

Now, the city is ready to change the rules again and give developers the green light to add new skyscrapers to the neighborhood. But new buildings, while necessary, may not be sufficient to make 21st century tenants happy.

“The pedestrian realm is not what it should be,” Burden said, calling Vanderbilt Avenue “cramped and dark,” and noting that bottlenecks at the Grand Central subway station are increasingly slowing down the entire city-wide transportation system.

The streets around Grand Central Station are a sharp contrast with the iconic building’s spacious and uplifting interior, said Tony Hiss, a visiting scholar at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service, who called the station “one of the most innovative spaces in history. Historically, we’ve held office districts to lower standards for public space,” Hiss said.

But that is changing, and as a younger, more mobile workforce looks for a quality of life outside their office, Midtown East needs to compete with the likes of The Highline, Hudson River Park, Memorial Park and even Bryant Park, just a few blocks to the west.

To help fund public space upgrades, the city planning department is proposing that developers be allowed to build bigger if they contribute to a fund dedicated to area-wide pedestrian network improvements. The proposal also calls for closing Vanderbilt Avenue to vehicular traffic and creating a pedestrian plaza.

To spark discussion about what shape these improvements might take, the Municipal Arts Society commissioned three architectural firms — Foster + Partners, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, and WXY architecture + urban design — to create a vision for the future of the public areas around the terminal and in East Midtown.

The offering from Skidmore, Owings & Merrill includes a circular pedestrian walkway suspended between two office towers stories above Grand Central Station.

“The plan for Midtown’s near future needs to make the Grand Central neighborhood a place people enjoy being in, not just running through,” Claire Weisz, principal at WXY, said in a statement. Even if the zoning changes today, building of new towers and the associated public space improvements — whatever their form – may not start for years, if not decades. But that does not mean the city should delay the proposed zoning changes, Hsu-Chen said.

“We need to get this done now,” she said. “It takes a long time to develop in a densely developed area.”

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