Developer pushes tower proposal, without Midtown East

Plans for 1 Vanderbilt. (SL Green)
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A New York real estate developer whose plans for a skyscraper taller than the Chrysler Building next to Grand Central Terminal were delayed by the demise of Bloomberg's Midtown East rezoning, is now negotiating with the de Blasio administration for a path forward that does not entail a neighborhood-wide rezoning.

According to knowledgable sources, SL Green, which describes itself as New York City's biggest office landlord, has been talking to the city planning department about ways it can move forward with its proposal for a 65-story, 1.6 million square foot tower called 1 Vanderbilt, between 42nd and 43rd streets, without having to wait for a broader rezoning.

SL Green had no comment, though during a January earnings call, the publicly traded company hinted at this course of action.

“We are still moving ahead on all fronts with the expectation that this will be developed, the only difference being that as a result of whether the East Side zoning goes through or not, we may have alternate plans,” said Marc Holliday, the company’s C.E.O. “But I think we can accommodate that under several different scenarios, and that's what we are working through now.”

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A spokeswoman for planning commissioner Carl Weisbrod said, “there are no updates at this time.”

But if SL Green succeeds in getting city approval to move forward on its own, it might further sap momentum for the Bloomberg-era neighborhood-wide rezoning known as Midtown East.

During his final year in office, Mayor Michael Bloomberg sought to allow taller buildings in a 73-block swath of Midtown anchored by Grand Central Terminal.

Over the long-term, the rezoning was expected to generate about 12 new skyscrapers. Since many would replace existing, aging buildings, the net increase in square footage was anticipated to amount to just 3.2 million.

In the near-term, only two skyscrapers were expected to rise: an L&L Holding Company tower at 425 Park Avenue designed by Norman Foster, and SL Green’s 1 Vanderbilt.

Money derived from the sale of development rights for those and other towers would be dedicated to infrastructure improvements.

The plan ended up dying a late-term death, thanks in good part to local Councilman Dan Garodnick's concerns that the city's promised infrastructure improvements were half-baked.

In the meantime, L&L is moving forward without the rezoning. If SL Green finds a way to do the same, two of the biggest cheerleaders for a neighborhood-wide rezoning may go silent, diminishing momentum for a project that both Garodnick and Mayor Bill de Blasio say is needed, and diminishing the prospects for that infrastructure-directed revenue.

When the original Midtown East plan fell apart, then mayor-elect Bill de Blasio promised to propose a new plan by the end of this year.

So far, the de Blasio administration hasn’t made any obvious moves in that direction, despite a renewed effort by Garodnick to kickstart the process.

In March, Garodnick published an op-ed in the Gotham Gazette arguing that the rezoning is still needed. Thanks to the existing “antiquated zoning rules,” he pointed out that someone who demolishes a building in the city’s premier business district can only rebuild it to the same size if they keep 25 percent of the old structure.

“We don’t want to create a disincentive for people to rejuvenate buildings that are getting old and less useful,” Garodnick told me, during an interview at an East Village cafe on Friday.

“So at a minimum, we should be updating the zoning to get those buildings out of that bind," he said. "But at the same time, we should consider whether additional density is necessary to create an incentive for a building owner to rejuvenate their building.”

The Blasio administration “acknowledged" his op-ed, according to Garodnick, and "said they’ve started their thought process on this.”

I asked him if the administration was still committed to presenting a new plan by the end of this year.

“You should talk to them about that,” he responded.

Asked for comment, the planning department sent the following statement from Weisbrod, the same one it provided in March after that Garodnick op-ed: “The Department of City Planning is taking a fresh look at East Midtown and how best to strengthen the areas a world-class 21-century commercial district, consistent with community and city-wide needs.”