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Committee bares plan to coax best out of Midtown East

A committee tasked with creating a plan to improve the Midtown East neighborhood has issued its recommendations for rezoning the area around Grand Central station.

The East Midtown Steering Committee, led by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Council Member Dan Garodnick, has come up with a framework that aims to improve transit access and implement standards for new developments. It also pushes the Landmarks Preservation Commission to designate certain buildings “with all due speed.”

“These recommendations will help enhance the East Midtown area as a world class commercial district in the 21st century. They will ensure that development doesn’t happen haphazardly and that landmarks, open space, and transit upgrades are at the forefront of the development process, rather than an afterthought,” Brewer said. In formulating its recommendations, the committee evaluated an area spanning 92 blocks, running from East 39th Street to East 57th and Fifth to Second Avenue. The group’s framework covers 73 blocks within the section.

GALE BREWER
GALE BREWER

Some of the group’s most important recommendations related to land use and density. The framework called for abolishing the ban against having retail above residential properties, setting a cap of 12 FAR (floor area ratios) on new residential projects to arrest housing growth in the commercial area and prohibiting the transfer of development rights from landmarked properties to residential developments.

“The future of East Midtown has never looked brighter,” said Council Member Garodnick. “We are delivering a framework that will unlock the economic potential of this world-class business district, while preserving our historic resources and ensuring that the public derives a benefit from new development projects. East Midtown’s potential will be realized both with new class-A office space, and with considerable improvements to our public realm and infrastructure.”

The recommendations also include a provision that allows developers to get more FARs. The two-step process involves contributing transit improvements and then obtaining plaza bonuses (exchanging the preservation of ground floor public spaces for the right to build taller buildings) or air rights transfers from landmarked buildings.

According to the recommendations, a “significant percentage” of any air rights sale would go into an “improvement fund” that would finance public improvements in the area. The percentage will be determined through a minimum per square foot contribution.

DAN GARODNICK
DAN GARODNICK

The guideline for selling air rights comes more than a month after Andrew Penson, the owner of Grand Central Terminal, sued the city and developer SL Green for $1.1 billion. Penson claims that the air rights over the station became “unsellable” and “worthless” after the city rezoned the area to allow SL Green to build a 1,501 foot tall tower.

Michael Mittelman, the communications counsel for Penson, declined to comment on the steering committee’s recommendations. However, he pointed to the complaint that they filed in US District Court in the Southern District of New York, which said, “the city’s ‘zoning’ took from Midtown the entire value of the Grand Central TDRs (transferrable development right) and transferred over $475 million of that value to SL Green, for no purpose other than to reduce SL Green’s costs and increase its profits in constructing an office tower that it was going to build anyway.”

Mittelman is not the only one who’s not completely sold on the group’s recommendations. A coalition made up of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, St. Bartholomew’s Church and Central Synagogue, expressed concern over the plan’s provisions on development rights.

“We are concerned that the high assessment on transfers proposed in the Committee report greatly diminishes the rezoning’s twin objectives of promoting development and historic preservation and we urge careful consideration of the plan to ensure our institutions can take full advantage of this unique opportunity. Any assessment associated with the transfer of development rights which may be considered by the City Planning Commission going forward should be sized so that it does not undermine the intent of the transfer provision as originally envisioned by the Steering Committee: to provide relief from the high cost of maintaining landmark buildings and to assist in their overall preservation,” the group said

The steering committee recommendations are expected to undergo public review next year.

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