New Zoning Rules. No More Views

(CityRealty) – The city is studying a rezoning of commercial properties in Midtown East to replace “aging” smaller stock.

Much larger new office buildings that might be developed under the plan, however, are likely to significantly obstruct many existing vistas from major residential properties in the area.

The city’s plan appears to be based on somewhat dubious premises that all buildings in the area that should be landmarked have been and that all corporations desire very large floors.

New York’s Department of City Planning said Thursday it plans to study whether the city’s commercial office market in midtown east needs to be reinvigorated with new zoning, according to a January 13, 2012 article at crainsnewyork.com by Amanda Fung.

The area in question contains 13 Fortune 500 companies and more than 70 million square feet of office space, according to the city.

“We are working to understand whether government action is necessary to promote reinvestment in this vital area and make sure it continues to meet the needs of today and tomorrow,” said a spokeswoman for the City Planning department.

Some observers are concerned, the article continued, “that existing regulations may be holding landlords back from making new investments in the area. Increasingly out-moded office space could cost the area its edge with tenants, especially the growing number of tech-driven outfits.”

Mayor Michael Bloomberg highlighted potential concerns over midtown east in his State of the City address on Thursday. “In the area around Grand Central, we’ll work with the City Council on a package of regulatory changes and incentives that will attract new investment, new companies and new jobs,” Mr. Bloomberg said.

The city is contemplating making it easier for developers to erect larger buildings between Fifth and Third Avenues and 40th and 57th Streets, according to an article by Eliot Brown published this weekend in the Wall Street Journal.

The rezoning would allow owners to erect larger towers on Park and Madison Avenues “in what officials hope would be an incentive to knock down buildings that no longer draw A-list tenants,” the article said, adding that “privately, city officials have said they expect to complete a study of eastern Midtown…by the spring, according to people briefed on the plan.”

According to the articles, the city’s plans would only apply to office properties but large new buildings erected under the revised zoning might very well substantially interfere with existing vistas from the residential portions of many major buildings such as Trump Tower, Olympic Tower.

“The effort, being directed by Deputy Mayor Robert Steel, comes as the Bloomberg administration is concerned about the city’s aging stock of office buildings,” the article said, adding that “according to real estate brokerage CBRE Group Inc., 71 percent of large office buildings in Manhattan are more than 50 years old” and “developers claim that’s made it hard to attract companies that want modern touches such as higher ceilings, more natural lift and more efficient energy use.”

The article said that the rezoning was “born out of a pitch made to the city in mid-2011 by the Real Estate Board of New York, which argued for a more limited rezoning plan that wouldn’t have added additional office space” and “city officials came back showing interest in a more elaborate version that could build up the area.”

“Since then, the real estate board has pushed the plan behind the scenes, pointing out that the area north of Grand Central is particularly concentrated with older buildings. Steven Roth, chairman of developer Vornado Realty Trust, has called for the city to dramatically increase the size of buildings allowed on Park Avenue,” the article added.

“The problem is that our building stock is so damn old, and the oldest of it is right in the sweet spot of our transportation hub,” said Mary Ann Tighe, REBNY chairwoman and chief executive of the New York office of CBRE.

The argument that many corporations want very large floors led a rezoning of Water Street in Lower Manhattan sometime ago that resulted in very bulky office buildings that were generally perceived as not architectural masterpieces. A large portion of the city’s office space is occupied by small companies with small offices.

Some of the city’s “damn old” office buildings with relatively small floors include the Chrysler Building, the Cunard Building and the Woolworth Building, world-class masterpieces.

No specific zoning details are yet available for the city’s plan, but it seems to run counter to the historic preservation interests of some activists who feel that landmark status and protection has not been given to all deserving buildings.

Recently, for example, the landmarks commission decided against granting landmark status to the Pennsylvania Hotel across from the entrance to Penn Station. Vornado Realty Trust has indicated it wants to demolish the giant hotel and replace it with a very tall office skyscraper that would significantly compete for visual interest with the Empire State Building.

Meanwhile, plans have been disclosed for a 1,300-foot-high, mixed-use, sheer tower on the former side of the Drake Hotel on the northwest corner of Park Avenue and 56th Street that would significantly block some vistas from such Emery Roth residential masterpieces as the Ritz Tower on the northeast corner of Park Avenue and 57th Street and the very fine 13-story co-op apartment building at 417 Park Avenue, which is shown at the right.

The completion of Grand Central Terminal and the covering of the railroad tracks north of it on Park Avenue led to its rapid redevelopment as a grand boulevard of luxury apartments.

The area between 46th Street, where the great New York Central Building, which is now the Helmsley Building, straddles the avenue, and 57th Street was filled with imposing and very harmonious office buildings, apartment buildings and hotels, most of which took their style from the brown-brick masonry designs of Warren & Wetmore, the main architects of Grand Central Terminal and the surrounding “Terminal City.” The main exceptions, were the Episcopal Church of St. Bartholomew and the Art Deco-style Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.

Lever House, the sleek, green-glass small office building designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill at 53rd Street, however, changed everything, ushering in the corporate era for Park Avenue.

Most of the contextual buildings soon gave way to new office towers. In his excellent book, “Park Avenue, Street of Dreams,” James Trager observed that 417 Park Avenue “is the last survivor of at least thirteen luxury apartment houses, most of them built before World War I,” along this section of the avenue, that were the prototypes for the residential development on the avenue north of the commercial district.

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