BY JACKSON CHEN | With the Midtown East rezoning plan progressing through its formal approval process, the Manhattan Borough Board — a body composed of the borough president, its councilmembers, and the chairs of its 12 community boards — held a forum to field questions and suggestions from parties who will be affected by the plan aimed at spurring modern office development in that district.
On March 2, Borough President Gale Brewer and East Side City Councilmember Dan Garodnick welcomed testimony from those impacted by the planned rezoning of a swath of Midtown bordered by East 39th Street and 57th Streets, between Third and Fifth Avenues, extending to Second Avenue between East 42nd and 43rd Streets. The rezoning would offer developers incentives to build denser office towers than they would otherwise be able to by buying unused development rights from landmarked structures throughout the district or by contributing to public realm improvement projects.
“It’s officially really just the beginning of the process, that’s why this conversation is so important,” Garodnick said. “We also recognize these plans tend to get better with public contribution.”
Garodnick and Brewer had co-chaired a steering committee that produced a 2015 report that formed the basis for the Department of City Planning’s rezoning proposal now under consideration.
One opinion voiced by numerous organizations involved the $393 square foot floor price, established earlier this year by the DCP, as the peg for setting the contribution made to a Public Realm Improvement Fund in connection with development rights sales. That contribution will be calculated as the greater of 20 percent of the sale value or $78.60 per square foot, one-fifth of $393. Critics said the number was far too high given current market conditions.
Representatives of major landmarked properties in the area argued that having to give up $78.60 per square foot would effectively yield them less than 80 cents on the dollar for selling their development rights — and could actually depress the volume of rights sold and therefore the total contribution to the Public Realm Improvement Fund, which will be overseen by a governing board to provide for open spaces and transit improvements.
Joseph Rosenberg, representing the Archdiocese of New York and the Trustees of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and Marcia Caban, the executive director of Central Synagogue, both claimed the floor price was “unrealistic.”
“The floor price is an unrealistic amount for an assumed minimum sales price, and it could actually hinder the transfer of floor area since it may not be worthwhile to transfer floor area when a disproportionate amount of the sale price is not actually received,” Caban said, emphasizing that landmarks like the Central Synagogue would be deprived of needed maintenance funds in the process.
Caban was joined by Rosenberg and the New York Landmarks Conservancy in calling for doing away with the floor price altogether and relying instead on a simple levy of 20 percent of the development rights’ sale value.
Other suggestions, however, would move the debate in the other direction. Community Board 5 member Michael Greeley said CB5 would like to see the public improvement levy increased from 20 to 30 percent, to insure adequate funding for public space amenities. CB5, he said, was satisfied with keeping a floor price, but thought it should be reassessed every three years, rather than between three and five years.
Greeley was joined by other members of Community Boards 5 and 6, which both plan votes on the rezoning this week, in offering their thoughts.
Other preservation advocates pressed for greater oversight on the nature of the district’s redevelopment. Simeon Bankoff of the Historic Districts Council called for more public oversight and review regarding the as-of-right transfer of development rights to promote transparency and better buildings. Several speakers noted that supertall office buildings could cast shadows on Central Park or Greenacre Park, a tucked-away pocket park at 217 East 51st Street.
According to Lois Cremmins, the executive director of the Greenacre Foundation that oversees that park, the additional shade produced by coming developments would impair the park’s honey locust trees, limit the variety of plantings, and reduce park usage. Cremmins’ suggestions were echoed by Thomas Devaney, the Municipal Art Society’s senior director of land use and planning, who also called for shadow mitigation measures, especially for Greenacre Park.
CB5’s Greeley also pointed to the need for a shadow study or a mitigation mechanism to prevent unwanted impacts on Central Park and other open spaces.
Kathy Thompson, a CB6 member who lives in Turtle Bay, said she feared that expected office development would essentially turn her quiet neighborhood into a commercial district. Thompson’s fellow board member Kathleen Kelly said that there should be more transparency on expenditures from the Public Realm Improvement Fund, citing concern that Metropolitan Transportation Authority projects would be favored over open space projects.
As Manhattan Express went to press on March 8, CB6 was taking up the rezoning plan, with CB5 expected to vote the following night during its full board meeting, according to its district manager Wally Rubin. Their votes will be followed by the Borough Board’s vote on March 16.