Quinn and Garodnick freeze Bloomberg’s Midtown East rezoning

Grand Central Terminal. (via Bob B. Brown)
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Councilman Dan Garodnick and Council speaker Christine Quinn will not vote in favor of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's plan to allow taller buildings around Grand Central Terminal.

That means that the controversial proposal to rezone some 73 blocks in Midtown East is now, effectively, dead.

“Creating new jobs in East Midtown—and across all of New York City—is essential," said the councilmembers in a joint statement just emailed to reporters. "We can and should do more with the commercial corridor around Grand Central. ... However, a good idea alone is not enough to justify action today. We should rezone East Midtown, but only when we can do so properly. After extensive negotiations, we have been unable to reach agreement on a number of issues in the proposed plan."

The real estate industry and Bloomberg administration have argued that the office space in Midtown East is outdated and increasingly unappealing to modern tenants. In order for New York City to retain its status as a world-class city in an increasingly global economy, the city must allow for more modern office skyscrapers around Grand Central, the argument goes.

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Most of the proposed rezoning falls within Garodnick's district, and since the Council typically refers to the local member in land use decisions, his support, or lack thereof, is considered decisive.

Garodnick has been walking a political tightrope on this issue for a while now. The real estate industry strongly supports the rezoning. And real estate executives, pointing to Garodnick's citywide ambitions, like to argue that killing a big development project is no way to get ahead in this world.

At the same time, the Hotel Trades Council, whose support is arguably of more practical value when it comes to Garodnick's speakership aspirations, also opposes the rezoning as envisioned by the Bloomberg administration, as do several community boards and planning organizations.

This week, the New York Times editorial board gave Garodnick more cover to vote against the rezoning by once again expressing its disapproval.

A small piece of the proposed rezoning also falls within Quinn's district. Had this rezoning proposal come about several years ago, when she was at the apex of her power and a close Bloomberg ally, it's not hard to imagine she would have fought to push this proposal through.

But since the demise of her campaign for mayor, Quinn hasn't been flexing much in the way of political muscle.

“Among other issues, we remain concerned with the price, methodology and timing of the air rights to be sold by the City for the District Improvement Bonus," Garodnick and Quinn say, in their statement. "We are also concerned with the certainty and funding level of the needed infrastructure improvements, which includes both above and below grade needs. The public realm plan is aspirational, and it is unclear at this point whether some of its most visionary improvements can even be executed. "

“We are committed to making the best decision for this community and all New Yorkers. We want to see development in the area that is both responsible and encourages growth that keeps us competitive with other cities. But, with so many outstanding issues, there is no good reason to rush the proposal through.

“We can achieve all of the goals set out by the Bloomberg Administration and do so in a way that respects the interests and perspectives of all of the stakeholders – the community; the workers who will populate and serve the new and expanded buildings in East Midtown; the landmarks in the area and the developers who support the current proposal.”

In a statement, mayor-elect Bill de Blasio applauded the councilmembers, "for pressing the pause button in order to ensure these concerns are adequately addressed. We must continue this process in earnest upon taking office, and I commit to presenting a revised rezoning plan for the area by the end of 2014."

"For the sake of New York City’s long-term economic vitality, Midtown East should be re-zoned to allow the creation of a world-class 21st-century commercial district," he said. "But it needs to be done right. We cannot afford to hand over the right to develop some of the most valuable real estate in the world without ensuring real and fair benefits for the people of New York City. We need to address the many unanswered questions about this plan, including how to build the infrastructure needed to accommodate the additional density created by the rezoning, and how to ensure that new development rights are appropriately priced to create the best possible value for the City."

UPDATE: A little over an hour later, Bloomberg issued a statement announcing that City Hall would withdraw its application to rezone Midtown East. Here it is, in full:

Due to a lack of City Council support, we are withdrawing the application for the rezoning of East Midtown. This will unfortunately cost the area hundreds of millions of dollars in badly needed subway and street improvements and $1 billion in additional tax revenue—as well as tens of thousands of new jobs that would have been created.
Throughout the lengthy and extensive public review process—which unfolded over the course of two years—we have worked with community leaders and elected officials to develop a modest proposal that would allow for a handful of sites to be redeveloped into modern office space, with developers paying into a fund that would support upgrades to the transportation network and open space in the area. We also worked closely with religious institutions in the area, and the proposal earned their support, providing them with a new funding source to maintain their iconic landmarked buildings. We have a financing agreement in place to pre-fund $100 million in mass transit and public space improvements before any new development could begin, but that funding was predicated on future development, which now will not occur.
The inability to reach a consensus on the plan’s details is regrettable, but it was encouraging that nearly everyone involved in the process recognized the need for the area to be rezoned to ensure that it remains competitive with other business districts around the world, and we appreciate the time that Speaker Quinn, Council Member Garodnick, and Council staff put into this issue. We are glad to at least be leaving the next administration a blueprint for future action.