Midtown east rezoning details draw mixed reviews
Less than a day after the City Planning Department added fresh detail to its plans for a rezoning of a vast swathe of midtown east various interested parties are voicing reservations, in advance of the finalized plan released for public review next month. As it stands the city has identified 32 "potential landmarks," which could be protected and made almost impervious to demolition. The city has also set the price at which it will sell the so-called air rights that will allow landlords of existing properties in the zone to build larger buildings. The air rights price, perhaps the most controversial piece of the plan, is $250 per square foot. That is expected to generate up to $750 million in funding for new infrastructure, with the first priority going to improving subway stations at Grand Central and building new pedestrian plazas along a car-free Vanderbilt Avenue. City Councilman Daniel Garodnick, who represents the area and will have an important say on the final shape of the plan, along with Council Speaker Christine Quinn, wants to be sure that the city isn't selling the right price too cheaply and that the funds raised are used to serve the public. "I just got the numbers yesterday, but I want to make sure the city isn't getting short changed," Mr. Garodnick said. He also voiced concern over the timing of needed infrastructure improvements, saying: "We need the infrastructure first, before any development takes place." Raju Mann, a planner at the Municipal Art Society who serves on the local community board considering the rezoning, said setting just one price for air rights across the entire neighborhood was a mistake. "They've priced it 250 a foot uniformly within a 70 block area," Mr, Mann said. "It's not hard to understand that the price for air rights on 57th and Park Avenue, which might be the best corner in the world, shouldn't be the same as 44th and 3rd Avenue, which is a more marginal location." At the presentation Thursday night, the planning department countered that it had gotten an independent, market-based appraisal from Landauer Valuation & Advisory, one that set a necessary balance between promoting development and earning funds for infrastructure. But Mr. Mann argued the city is behaving as irrationally. "The city could leave tens of millions of dollars on the table," he said. "No developer would ever do that, so why is the city doing that?" In contrast, developers—the potential buyers of those air rights—believe the city may have gone too far, and its price could stymie new towers, expected to rise as high as the Empire State Building. "It's a number that may be slightly high," said Steven Spinola, president of the Real Estate Board of New York. "I have had a couple of our member say to me that they were expecting it to come in lower." As for the landmarks, those in the preservation community were pleasantly surprised. Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, was happy to see that almost exactly the same number of landmarks are under consideration as when his group released a list of 33 buildings it thought worthy of saving, even if they are not the identical building. "We're sorry they're not considering all of ours, but there are some interesting buildings on here, and we're glad they're looking seriously at this issue," Mr. Bankoff said. Mr. Garodnick was also pleased with the results. "There is a high standard for landmarking in the economic center of New York, but there are also some buildings here that are worthy of our attention," the councilman said. "I'll be interested in seeing which buildings the landmarks commission chooses to focus on calendaring." Not all of the 32 buildings laid out will get reviewed for official landmarking. Mr. Garodnick and others were still irked by the haste with which the city was moving on the rezoning—years quicker than anything the department has done on this scale—but they all seemed resigned to the administration moving forward with the rezoning anyway. To ensure the best possible plan, Mr. Garodnick said the city must be as open as possible to changing the rezoning throughout the entire public review process, which will run into the fall. "The planning commission should be very aware of not boxing in the council on this," he said. "Everything should be in scope, everything should be up for discussion, because we'll be figuring this out right up to the buzzer."
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