Bloomberg wants “iconic new buildings” for midtown East, he said last week in his final State of the City address. “Zoning regulations around Grand Central effectively prohibit development,” he said, “even though the area has the best mass transit links in the entire country.”
The mayor said that changing the law is now or never. “Given all the politics and special interests, if we don’t do it this year, it may never get done,” he warned.
But to see why midtown residents and commuters can’t trust the city to make sure that its subway system keeps up with daytime population growth, just look to Brooklyn. Nearly a decade ago, in 2005, the City Council approved Bloomberg’s rezoning of much of Williamsburg and Greenpoint to allow for dense residential construction.
Ridership on the L train into Manhattan soared. Between 2005 and 2010 weekday ridership increased by a third to nearly 132,000 people. Even as the MTA increased service, rush hour trains remained overcrowded. The state-run MTA noted in 2011 that “trains continue to carry loads above guidelines,” meaning that standing passengers don’t get their allotted three square feet. Commuters could wait for three trains to pass by before they could squeeze on.
This was predictable. Ridership was growing before the rezoning. But residents have had to lobby heavily to get more service, and they have had to wait. Today things are marginally better. But it won’t be until this autumn that the MTA adds a waterfront bus service to ease travel within growing Brooklyn neighborhoods.
If the City Council allows for midtown rezoning now and transit fixes later, midtown will have the same problem. “The Lexington Avenue line”—the 4, 5 and 6 trains—“is at 116 percent capacity today, even before you add density,” notes City Councilman Dan Garodnick, who represents the area around Grand Central as well as parts of the Upper East Side.
Subway waiting areas at Grand Central are uncomfortably overcrowded even off-rush hours. Commuters gingerly pick their way around bulky staircases on narrow platforms.
Yes, the full Second Avenue Subway project, which would go from 125th Street to Hanover Square downtown, would eventually ease crowding. But the key word is eventually. The MTA is building only “phase one”: three new stations plus one new transfer on the Upper East Side, out of a planned 16 for the whole route.
The Bloomberg folks have nodded to worries about more midtown subway crowding. Last month they said they’d require developers looking to build more densely to contribute to transit improvements. Those projects would include $400 million for the MTA to fix platforms and make other improvements at Grand Central and at 53rd Street.
But why hasn’t the city already done this? Lexington conditions have been intolerable for a decade. As Garodnick says, the Lex line needs bigger platforms “with or without any rezoning.”
Bloomberg has skimped on transit elsewhere, too. To save $500 million, he cut one of two planned stations with the city’s funding of the MTA’s extension of the No. 7 train, from Times Square to the far West Side. That decision doomed future commuters to long walks in the cold or heat.
Speaker Quinn should be in no hurry to rezone midtown. She should propose postponing the project for three years. That would give the current mayor and the next mayor time to fix the city’s budget so that New York can build underground before inviting developers to build above ground.
Bloomberg or his successor could pay for $400 million worth of transit improvements with just 17 days’ worth of spending on public workers’ health care benefits.
To paraphrase Bloomberg, if New York can’t do this now, it never will—which means we can’t afford more people in midtown later—not without condemning them to a miserable quality of life.
Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. This is her debut monthly column for City & State. @nicolegelinas on Twitter. Gelinas will be filling in for Susan Del Percio, who is on hiatus from the paper to serve as director of communications for Joe Lhota’s New York City mayoral campaign.