After a five-year wait, including a false start under the Bloomberg administration, the New York City Council passed the East Midtown rezoning on Wednesday. The zoning changes will allow developers to build bigger in an effort to modernize the aging Manhattan neighborhood, but also improve subway stations and public spaces.
“Nothing is going to happen right away, but over the next few decades, it’s going to do a great deal to re-strengthen the East Midtown community,” said Rob Byrne, president of the East Midtown Partnership, a business improvement district overlapping with much of the rezoned area. City & State’s Jeff Coltin talked to Byrne about his changing neighborhood, the timeline for new construction, and the role played by New York City Councilman Dan Garodnick.
C&S: What concrete changes can we expect for the neighborhood rezoning?
RB: Short term, you will see some public realm improvements. The city is already committed to some shared-street work improvements along 53rd Street. They’re looking at improving flow-through and turning lanes on Park Avenue and other above-ground improvements as a kind of sweetener to get things rolling.
On the longer term, what you’re going to see is about, I believe, a half-billion dollars in capital improvements to the subway systems. And that money will have to go in before any above-ground development begins. You will see about 6.5 million commercial square feet of new, modern office space that is essential to the modern age and the new firms we want to keep here in an effort to continue to make East Midtown a strong, international commercial center.
C&S: There’s Grand Central, of course, but should we also expect to see improvements at stations like Lexington and 53rd?
RB: It’s included, yes it is. I was a member of the screening committee that met over the course of the last three years on this project. And one of the things that we asked for very specifically was for the MTA to come in with a list of their priority projects. So there is now a to-do list. And that will be tackled as these developments roll out. And as the funding becomes available.
C&S: When do you actually expect to see construction beginning on new buildings? Is that a year away, or five years?
RB: That’s going to depend on the tenancies in the buildings right now. We’re going to have to wait for the leases to expire, etc. I’m not sure, out of the building areas that have so far been most-closely identified as prospective development sites, I’m not sure what the timeline is for emptying them out. I would say closer to five years than one year in most cases. But some of these sites, the property owners are very keen to getting underway and making the improvements. Though some will be more long-term prospects. Some will be more like 15, 20 years. And some owners may decide they don’t want to develop in the long run after all. But at least now they do have the tools to do so.
C&S: Have you seen tenants leave the neighborhood because the office space isn’t modernized?
RB: It’s been an issue, it’s been a concern. Everybody wants to write about the sexy new spaces. They want to write about people going to Hudson Yards, or One World Trade, and that is happening. We’re also seeing a lot of commercial tenants that are staying in this area. It’s not like a mass exodus, but no doubt about it, the new developments are drawing a good number of large commercial tenants out of East Midtown. There’s a reason for that. Seventy-five-, 100-year-old buildings cannot keep up with the needs of these tenants. We do feel that this is going to do a great deal to strengthen and make more permanent the existing tenants and draw new ones back here.
C&S: Would you have preferred that Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s initial plan pass in 2012? Or is the new deal worth the wait?
RB: I’m going to have to hedge a little, and say because I wasn’t part of the process in 2012 – it was presented as a fait accompli out of City Planning. There was very much good intent in that and that’s why it was used as the base model for what was developed this time around. By the same token, this process, spearheaded by Councilmember (Dan) Garodnick and Borough President (Gale) Brewer and the (de Blasio) administration had a lot more input. With more give and take, there was less mystery to the process. More voices were heard. Consequently, we all have to live with some things we aren’t super enthusiastic about, but that’s the nature of compromise in a democratic society. I think this is probably a more solid plan that has more widespread support and therefore will have more resonance in the long term. That said, there were very good things about 2012. I just think there are better things about 2017.
C&S: Dan Garodnick is term-limited at the end of the year. How helpful has he been in the process?
RB: Oh, amazingly. This wouldn’t have happened without Dan Garodnick. I’m confident to say this is his legacy legislation. I have no idea what the future holds for him. I’ve never asked him, and if I did, he probably wouldn’t tell me (laughs). But we have been well-served by him over the last twelve years in City Council and he is leaving a great imprint for decades to come here.