City Council committee approves Midtown East rezoning

A City Council subcommittee approved the long-awaited rezoning of Midtown East Thursday. The new rules will allow developers to build larger office towers than currently allowed in exchange for improvements for pedestrians and commuters.

"The plan allows bigger development near subway stations all around East Midtown, and allows for density to be earned by doing transit improvements," City Councilman Dan Garodnick said during a council hearing. "This is certainly the right place to put lots of new density near Grand Central, one of our most important regional hubs."

The full council must still approve the plan, but the subcommittee's vote Thursday virtually guarantees that will happen.

Developers will be able to boost the size of their towers by purchasing unused development rights from landmarked properties in the area and, if they are near a subway station, committing to transit improvements. A portion of each air rights transaction will be taken by the city and put toward a public-realm improvement fund, which will be run by appointees from elected officials and community groups.

While the plan had much more consensus than an ill-fated attempt to rezone the area in 2013, a number of sticking points leading up to Thursday's vote compelled changes made by the council.

Among the tweaks is a new provision that requires developers to include public space, such as an indoor atrium or an outdoor pocket park, in sites topping 30,000 square feet. Lawmakers also nixed five blocks on the east side of Third Avenue from the upzoning after complaints from Turtle Bay residents.

Two of the most hotly contested elements of the plan concerned the sale of unused development rights by the owners of landmarked properties such as St. Patrick's Cathedral, and how much dough the city would take from each transaction. The city had proposed establishing a floor price as a guarantee that money would flow into the public-realm improvement fund. Landmarked property owners and the Real Estate Board of New York opposed the idea, saying it would stifle sales in soft markets.

The council lowered the floor price from what was being proposed, but critics said that it is still much too high, and was calculated through a flawed analysis. 

“The agreement […] regarding the Greater East Midtown Rezoning proposal is a step backwards in the ongoing effort the ensure Midtown Manhattan’s position as a premier global office district,” REBNY head John Banks said in a statement, later adding that the floor price will make it “less likely that the public improvements that are needed in Greater East Midtown will be achieved.”

After complaints that the public-realm improvements lacked specificity, the governing group is now required to draw up a list of projects and their costs by November.