TESTIMONY OF COUNCIL MEMBER DANIEL R. GARODNICK IN FRONT OF THE CITY PLANNING COMMISSION REGARDING THE PROPOSED EAST MIDTOWN REZONING

Testimony of

Council Member Daniel R. Garodnick

in front of the City Planning Commission

regarding the proposed East Midtown Rezoning

 

April 26, 2017

 

Good morning, and thank you for the opportunity to testify today.  My name is Dan Garodnick, and I represent the Fourth District in the New York City Council.  

 

Introduction

 

I want to begin by thanking the mayoral agencies, particularly the Department of City Planning (DCP), the Department of Transportation (DOT), the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), and the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) for their work on this proposal.

 

I am pleased to see the progress that this proposal has made over the last several months. Many important issues have been threshed out in the public review process, and that’s exactly what this process is for.

 

Several items still remain to work out, however, and I urge the Commission to resolve as many as possible.

 

First, there is the subject of the minimum contribution, or, as it has been frequently referred to, the “floor price.” As most folks here know, the proposal contemplates that, when developers purchase air rights from landmarks, a portion of the value of that transaction will be contributed to the Public Improvement Fund. The contribution right now is proposed to be set at a minimum of $78.60 per square foot or 20% of the value of the transaction, whichever is greater. There has been quite a lot of dispute, however, as to whether $78.60 is the proper minimum, or whether there should be a minimum contribution at all.  

 

This is a critical issue to resolve. On one hand, it is essential that the public get its fair share of the value of the development activity that is generated by this rezoning. On the other hand, we need to ensure that the development activity actually happens, and is not stifled by one aspect of the proposal.

 

I would encourage the Commission to take a close look at the competing valuation proposals, and make sure that the proposed minimum contribution hits the right balance between ensuring that the public gets its fair share, and encouraging enough development to take place to achieve the goals that the City has set for this rezoning.

 

Second, the eastern boundary of the proposed subdistrict also remains in dispute. Community Board Six and representatives of the Turtle Bay residential neighborhood to the east of Third Avenue are very concerned about the pressures on that neighborhood that could result from the influx of larger commercial buildings on the east side of Third Avenue than currently exist there. They advocate for moving the eastern edge of the district to the middle of Third Avenue. Representatives of the development community, conversely, are concerned that losing the sites on the east side of Third would depress the market for landmark air rights and, again, reduce the amount of development that we are looking for this proposal to generate.

 

At the same time, at the north edge of the district, there could be an opportunity for you to expand the district slightly to include one additional site, at 165 East 56 Street, to match the existing zoning boundaries and expand the market for landmark air rights, without impacting Turtle Bay.

 

Third, there remain quite a lot of concerns about the effects of the proposed changes to height and setback rules in the district. While the Steering Committee on whose recommendations this proposal is based did recommend that some height and setback rules might be relaxed in order to facilitate as-of-right development, there is a great deal of concern on the part of the community that the proposed height and setback rules go too far, and undermine the framework that has worked well in midtown since 1982. It is absolutely critical that we keep as much light and air as possible in the concrete canyons of midtown.

 

Fourth, we need to ensure that public plazas are required under the proposal. The Department has agreed to “study” an alternative under which POPS would be required on Qualifying Sites over 40,000 square feet. Given that the creation of new open public space has, from the beginning, been a foundational goal of the East Midtown rezoning effort, it is important that this study results in a corresponding change to the formal proposal. And it is no less important that we ensure that the resulting plazas are well-maintained, and that the relevant regulations are properly enforced.

 

Fifth, we need further clarity on the public realm improvements that would accompany the passage of this rezoning. The administration made a number of commitments to the Borough President with respect to the public realm, which I was very glad to see. In particular, the public was promised a shared-street pilot, a change to the traffic patterns on Park Avenue that would enhance the pedestrian experience (and serve as a prelude to expansion of the medians into usable park space), beautification of the 53rd Street corridor, and an upgrade to the Pershing Square East plaza. There remain, however, significant open questions with respect to each of those. By the time the City Council votes, there needs to be certainty on all of these commitments. In addition, I urge the administration to make a significant, specific funding commitment to the Public Improvement Fund as starting capital. I hope that the Commission is able to develop further information on this front prior to approving this proposal.

 

Sixth, changes need to be made to the governance structure of the Governing Group that will be in charge of disbursing the money in the Public Improvement Fund. While this group is designed to include representatives of Community Boards 5 and 6, as well as representatives of the Borough President and Council Member for the 4th District, mayoral appointees constitute a majority of the board. To make sure that the community representatives have a genuine say in the proceedings, rather than just a place at the table, the governance structure must either include a supermajority requirement in order for the group to act -- or a majority of non-mayoral members in the group. In addition, protections must be put in place to ensure that the funds are maintained in a “lockbox,” specifically reserved for the improvement of the East Midtown public realm. And, of course, the governance structure should meet best practices for transparency and accountability.

 

Seventh, we must do everything we can to protect the few high-quality open-space resources that already exist in this open-space-starved area.  Specifically, Greenacre Park, a beautiful vest-pocket park on East 53rd Street -- an unusually leafy and restful place of respite for local workers and residents -- is likely to see significant shadow impacts as a result of some of the buildings that will go up. This would hurt the park’s ability to grow the foliage that is such an essential element of its appeal. As we work to create new public space in the area, it would be irresponsible to fail to protect the space that we already have. I urge the Commission to find a way to preserve this exceptional public resource.

 

Eighth, there is the issue of residential conversions in the area. The very nature of this district is that it is intended as a place of business, and an engine of the economy. We should not be encouraging residential development here, especially since it is unlikely to result in a 24-hour, mixed-use district.  The Administration does not see this as a significant risk, but has agreed to report on residential conversion activity in five years to determine whether further action is necessary. The Borough President recommends, however, that reporting is done annually, in order to provide adequate notice of any needed zoning changes. I echo the Borough President’s call for a more timely reporting requirement.

 

Finally, I want to note that we want to make sure that East Midtown continues to be a job center for people in all sectors. That means that the security guards, porters, and others who currently service East Midtown buildings must be respected, and that the cleaning and security jobs created in the new buildings that will go up are good-paying, high quality jobs.

 

Conclusion

 

As I have noted many times, this proposal presents a strong, effective plan to revitalize East Midtown as a premiere business district and an economic engine for our city.  It represents a significant improvement over previous proposals, and it can transform the district. I am proud of the East Midtown community for creating the template for this proposal, pleased that city agencies engaged with the community’s plan and turned it into action, and excited that this long journey is nearing its end. The concerns I have identified are critical to the success of the plan, but I also believe that they are resolvable, and will make for a stronger, better proposal for all constituencies.  And, of course, other issues may develop later in the process that would need to be resolved, and I will look carefully at any such issues. But we are in a good place. The future of East Midtown is coming, and it’s going to be great.

 

Thank you again for the opportunity to speak today. I also am very interested in the feedback from the public, and I and my staff are here to listen to your concerns and suggestions.