The Soapbox: Many questions remain on East Midtown Rezoning

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By Barry Shapiro

For those not aware, East Midtown Rezoning is a city initiative to rezone roughly from 39th Street to 57th Street from Fifth Avenue to Third Avenue.
The proposed changes in the area will allow real estate developers to build higher and increase overall free space for development by about 6.5 percent. There will also be development of some public spaces and improvements to subway stations.

This along with the LIRR terminal at Grand Central planned to open in 2022 will significantly add to the area’s population density.

Major rezoning has to go through the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), which requires pertinent community boards to have their say. Negative votes by community board reps on the project’s Borough Council would have a somewhat damaging effect.

Recently Community Boards 5 and 6 submitted their responses to the rezoning proposal. The CB5 and 6 responses were negative to doubtful. Although when tasked to vote, the reps from CB5 and 6 abstained. City Council members approved the proposal unanimously which means the proposal moves forward for now as is, although changes are still possible.

For those who have been involved in this effort, there has already been a swirl of controversy. Negative effects of shadows on the general quality of light, air and on embedded parks, encroachment of large commercial buildings into residential sections just east of Third Avenue, destruction of landmark buildings have all been raised as issues while other groups like REBNY have been clamoring for more development possibilities.

Air rights are an issue, and of course, there are those in city government who begin associated public conversations by pointing out first and foremost that the largest contributions to city coffers come from real estate-related fees and taxes. I should underscore: It appears the city really wants the taxes and fees that would arise from the overall upgrade.

Here is why you in particular might care about East Midtown Rezoning if you take the Lexington 6 train, the E, F or M trains or if you take any of the Fifth Avenue, Madison Avenue, Lexington Avenue or Third Avenue buses through or into midtown or work in the targeted area.

The following passages are taken from Greater East Midtown Rezoning Proposal, CEQR No. 17DCP001M, a summary document produced by City Planning available on the web, based on an environmental impact study done by VBH, a engineering company hired by City Planning.

From the sub-section Unavoidable Adverse Impacts which appears toward the end of the document:

Traffic …the Proposed Action would result in significant adverse traffic impacts at 116 intersections during one or more analyzed peak hours.

Transit… .the Proposed Action would result in significant adverse impacts at three subway stations… in the weekday a.m. and p.m. commuter peak hours. At the Grand Central 42nd Street subway station… At the 42nd St.-Bryant Park subway station… At the Lexington Avenue-53rd Street subway station…

Pedestrians …the Proposed Action would significantly adversely impact a total of nine sidewalks, 26 crosswalks and 22 corner areas in one or more peak hours.”

Significant adverse impacts… Not explained.

In all cases, the document indicates that mitigations might be implemented or explored. It also indicates that mitigations might be deemed either impossible or unfeasible.

A very detailed technical impact document exists with a section about Transportation, but it is far too technical for most laymen. Basically, what most commuters would want to know in layman’s terms is how much worse are the area’s well-known delays and crowding going to get.

I can attest that crowding at rush hours on the 6 line from 23rd to 51st Street going uptown a.m. and p.m. down, and on the E and M platform at 53rd and Fifth at the p.m. rush hour is usually far beyond reasonable limits. And most of us are well acquainted with how impossible the bus and car traffic already is between 39th and 59th and often beyond.

When City Planning presented its rezoning proposal to CB6, I asked one of the reps from City Planning questions about the “unavoidable adverse” transportation items above. He said he didn’t know; I needed to speak to someone from VBH about them.

In fact, I did email the VBH project leader. Am still waiting.

So in the end I have to borrow a term used by CB5 in its response to the rezoning proposal. There is just too much “uncertainty” about it. Though real estate developers and the city coffers stand to gain from the proposal, there doesn’t seem to be any win at all here for residents and commuters. So far as quality of life is concerned, this proposal seems to represent another loss in order to benefit real estate developers, city coffers and politicians.

When I see pertinent councilmen proceeding ahead seemingly at odds with their community boards and not holding several town hall meetings to explain their thoughts and positions, it makes me feel they aren’t fulfilling their roles and obligations to represent the people who elected them.

Though the role of Community Boards is advisory, I believe any councilman at odds with his or her community boards and public owes a full airing and explanation.

I hope Community Boards 5 and 6 demand a full public airing of the rezoning proposal with Rosie Mendez and Dan Garodnick in open town hall debate-like settings with a representative from VBH present so that “impact on quality of life” questions can be answered professionally.

Anything any majority feels about ULURP projects may have little or no impact on city administration decisions. It’s true that the public is usually quite powerless when the city decides to make such moves. Until it’s time to vote.

Barry Shapiro has been a resident of Peter Cooper Village for 25 years, Stuyvesant Town for 15 years. He was a computer systems manager/analyst and is retired from a career at American Express.  


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