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Over 100 Speakers Flood The Podium At Epic Rezoning Hearing

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The choo-choo train of development that is the Bloomberg administration's uber-controversial proposal to rezone Midtown East continues to wind its way through the tracks of the city's approval process, and today it pulled into the City Planning Commission's station. The panel of commissioners held a mobbed public hearing this morning; at least 113 speakers signed up to deliver testimony for and against the plan, and the audience was heavily stacked with hospitality union workers clad in navy blue T-shirts lobbying for the area to be granted a special hotel permit.

The issues at the crux of the debate remain consistent. Those in favor of the plan cite the outdated commercial buildings and all-around below-standard nature of the 70-block chunk of land roughly bounded by 42nd Street, 57th Street, Fifth Avenue, and Third Avenue. Developers, landlords, prospective tenants, business interests, and brokers make up a group who want to change the zoning rules to allow what's in turns minimized as "a handful" and played up as "a wall" (depending on who you ask) of new, taller, denser, greener office buildings. The builders of these towers would have to pay into a District Improvement Fund (DIF), which would in turn fund improvements to the neighborhood in the arenas of transit, public space, and more. Those against the plan?or who might be swung in favor, should modifications and amendments be tacked on?are worried about the following: overcrowding of subways, and streets; landmarks; preservation; ugly high-rises; affordability; funding; light, air, and density. Whew.

Speaking for the pro camp was deputy mayor Robert Steel, CBRE CEO, former REBNY chair and general commercial broker powerhouse Mary Ann Tighe, the Regional Plan Association chair, several MTA officials, the developer of Norman Foster-designed 425 Park Avenue (who wants in on the new zoning), and more. The plan would, according to Steel's testimony, raise more than $500 million for the Grand Central area, "create more than 70,000 new construction jobs; strengthen the city's tax base; add cutting-edge new architecture; continue our commitment to transportation-based development; and enhance the daily work environment for tens of thousands of New Yorkers. We can do this by adding less than 5% more projected building area to East Midtown."

Meanwhile, Council Members Dan Garodnick, Jessica Lappin, and Gale Brewer, State Senator Liz Krueger, preservationists from the Landmarks Conservancy and the Historic Districts Council, and others were decidedly more cautious. Most concerns related to the misguided nature of pushing a major overhaul through the city approval process before Bloomberg is booted from office, when in fact more time is absolutely necessary to adjust and tweak the plan first. Other beef (which was also shot down by the plan's champions) includes the competition for tenants with rising towers in Hudson Yards and the World Trade Center and the pricing of air rights that landmarks can now sell to developers. Despite an overabundance of documentation from all testimony deliverers, a general lack of specificity got everyone's goat. What kinds of transit improvements will be made? And when? Which will be made first? And how much will they cost? And so on down the line.

Attendees got riled up with Peter Ward, the president of the New York Hotel Trades Council, took the stand. Making the point that thousands of unionized hotel workers are employed in the neighborhood in question, he emphasized the need to protect their jobs and called for a special hotel permit for the area so that not all of the new buildings are offices or condo towers (now that residential development is allowed).

Borough President Scott Stringer have conditionally supported rezoning, but with some significant amendments and suggestions related to funding, transit, and "what should come first" opinions, which the City Planning Commission will take into account as it deliberates over its vote, which must be finalized by the end of September. The proposal will then pass before the City Council, where, it should be noted, we can probably expect another round of public input at least as big as this one. The end of the ULURP process will occur right before the handover to the new mayor, so by the end of 2013, we should know which side has won. But not without enduring another billion hours of testimony, so gird your loins, everyone.
· All Midtown East Rezoning coverage [Curbed]