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With Midtown East rezoning, landmarks help sprout a new skyline

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Landmarks like St. Patrick’s and Grand Central Terminal will be able to sell off their treasure trove of air rights for millions

St. Patrick's Cathedral

The City Council subcommittee on Land Use voted to advance the rezoning of Midtown East on Thursday, paving the way for an approval by the full City Council on August 9. The vote comes nearly a year after the Department of City Planning rendered an official proposal for the rezoning, a Bloomberg-era idea that failed to gain traction until 2015 when City Council member Dan Garodnick and a team of community stakeholders rehashed the plan.

In its current iteration, the rezoning will allow taller buildings underscored by infrastructure improvements within a 78-block stretch bound roughly by East 39th and East 57th streets and Third and Fifth avenues.

The plan okayed by the City Council subcommittee also allows landmarked buildings to sell their air rights to developers looking to build taller anywhere within the rezoning district. Currently, landmarks are only able to sell their air rights to developers whose properties are next door, across the street, or catty-corner—and the properties surrounding the area’s landmarks are, for the most part, built to their zoning capacity. In short, landmarks in the proposed rezoning area have been sitting on money that they haven’t been able to withdraw—until now.

The black line represents the proposed rezoning area. The blue line frames the already-rezoned Vanderbilt Corridor.
Department of City Planning

So it would make sense that the area’s landmarks would have a special interest in advancing the rezoning. And that, a New York Times report turns out, is exactly what the Roman Catholic archdiocese behind St. Patrick’s Cathedral, on the edge of the rezoning district, has quietly been doing.

Since 2014, the Times reports, the archdiocese has paid a consulting firm $320,000 to lobby for the rezoning, going so far as handing out leaflets at Madison Square Garden during Pope Francis’s speech there in 2015. Under the rezoning that’s poised to be adopted, much of what the archdiocese hoped for is in place.

But one of the proposal’s most contentious facets is still riling the church and other area landmarks, like Grand Central Terminal whose owner has also expressed interest in selling off its air rights: a tax to be collected on the sale of air rights by the city for infrastructure improvements. The figure approved by the Land Use subcommittee on Thursday is a minimum collection of $61.49 per square foot, or 20 percent of the whole sale—whichever is higher. The church claims the fee will impinge on its ability to move the air rights.

But this is New York, and development, it seems, will plod mercilessly forward. At least that’s the angle that New York Magazine architecture critic Justin Davidson takes. “Take a good long look at the Chrysler Building needling over the skyline, because that view is going away,” Davidson writes. “[M]aybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.” Davidson is of course warning of the onslaught of dense and tall new development that will sprout in the neighborhood soon after the rezoning is approved.

One Vanderbilt was okayed before the rezoning, but is a vision of what’s to come.
Max Touhey

St. Patrick’s has about 1.1 million square feet in air rights to offload, and Grand Central Terminal has about 1.2 million—each roughly the size of the Chrysler Building itself. A city estimate concludes that there are 16 sites within the rezoning area that could sprout major new construction akin to One Vanderbilt. Davidson says there are about 3.6 million square feet of air rights from landmarks to be sold within the rezoning area that will lead to $221 million in public improvements.

The assumption is that the new office buildings that the Midtown East rezoning will allow for will continue to be needed—even as new commercial real estate hubs sprout and flourish around Hudson Yards and in the Financial District. It is, after all, the need to keep the aging office buildings of Midtown East, that are on average 75 years old, competitive with the city’s stock of new office buildings that powers the rezoning.

The effects of the plan are already starting to play out. An email obtained by the Times says that Pfizer, whose headquarters are on East 42nd Street and who will benefit from the rezoning and the site’s increased value, will be leaving their perch and moving to “a Manhattan location that provides colleagues with a modern office space of the future.” Sorry Midtown East, you got played.

Hudson Yards

347 10th Avenue, Manhattan, NY 10001 (212) 801-1000 Visit Website

Grand Central Terminal

89 East 42nd Street, Manhattan, NY 10017 (212) 340-2583 Visit Website

Madison Square Garden

4 Pennsylvania Plaza, Manhattan, NY 10001 (212) 465-6741 Visit Website

One Vanderbilt

1 Vanderbilt Avenue, Manhattan, NY 10017 Visit Website

Chrysler Building

, Manhattan, NY 10174

Hudson Yards

, Manhattan, NY 10001