Towering debate over plan to supersize Midtown

The Yale Club, built in 1915, was the site of a dialogue on the rezoning of Midtown Manhattan — and could be vulnerable to demolition, preservationists warn. Photo: Rob Nguyen/Flickr

It was a face-off of legacies.

Supporters of Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal to change zoning to allow construction of taller buildings in midtown Manhattan sparred with critics of the plan at a panel discussion at the Yale Club on Tuesday morning.

The panel, presented by Crain’s New York Business, was a chance for actors in the unfurling drama to state their cases for and against rezoning outside the formal proceedings now underway under the city’s land use review process. The rezoning was initiated by the Bloomberg administration’s Department of City Planning, ignited by the mayor’s drive to spur renewal of the architectural landscape of midtown before the end of his term in January 2014.

The mayor has promoted the proposed rezoning as part of his legacy to the city. But the plan has pitted him against defenders of another heritage: the neighborhood’s current architectural character.

Current zoning rules limit the height of new buildings to 30 floors in the designated area.

Under the plan, unveiled by the Department of City Plannig last July, developers could increase the capacity of buildings by 60 percent for some locations, and by 44 percent along an 11-block expanse of Park Avenue. And certain owners could purchase the rights to build higher.

Arguing in favor of rezoning, Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Robert K. Steel highlighted the need for current rules to be amended to make way for modern office development projects.

“This area is falling behind,” said Steel.

The midtown area that would be rezoned — spanning 70 blocks between 39th and 57th Streets, east of Fifth Avenue.  — is currently home to 14 Fortune 500 headquarters.

The area is also packed with architectural landmarks such as the 47-story Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, a famed example of Art Deco architecture.

The Bloomberg administration has argued over the past year that the area’s global competitive edge is compromised due to arcane regulations that outlaw the construction of the kind of office space increasingly sought after: modern high-rise buildings.

A disapproving City Council has, however, threatened to stand in the administration’s way. The Council will have three weeks to approve the proposal once it receives it from the City Planning Commission, where it is currently being reviewed.

Commission spokesperson Shirley Limongi said that the body will likely vote on the rezoning plan to City Council on Feb. 7, a day after its scheduled public meeting on the issue.

Council members have asked for a six-month delay in the process.

“We want to make sure that there is a plan,” said Manhattan Councilmember Daniel Garodnick, whose district overlaps with the area subject to the rezoning. “At the Council we think that we will be looking at the issue much sooner than we would like.”

The proposal has stirred controversy, with preservationists arguing that it could disfigure the neighborhood. Some other urban planning observers insist more studies are needed to evaluate rezoning’s potential impact.

The widening gap was in full view at the panel discussion, with Garodnick citing the need to measure its impact on the city’s overcrowded public transit system.

Garodnick also said policy-makers should think about whether it was oversaturating the area with office space projects. Similar initiatives, such as the Hudson Yards project on the far West Side, are already underway in mid Manhattan.

The real estate community is growing impatient, said Steven Spinola, who heads the Real Estate Board of New York, a lobby group for property developers.

“I know in government two years is seen as fast-track,” he said at the meeting. “Well, it’s not necessarily fast-track.”

“This administration recognizes the changes needed,” he said, adding that the city must remain competitive.

The meeting took place at the historic Yale Club, 22 stories high and built in 1915. The Municipal Art Society and New York Landmarks Conservancy recently identified the building as under threat of being demolished if the rezoning proposal is passed.

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