Monday, May 13, 2013

East Midtown Rezoning Study: New York City Revisits the Ultimate TOD

Grand Central Terminal

Grand Central Terminal is one of New York's historic landmarks and a major transportation nexus, serving over half a million people each day.  The access provided by Grand Central Terminal helped grow the East Midtown area into one of the largest job centers in NYC.  East Midtown contains 70 million square feet of office space and 200,000 workers, as well as many of the City's iconic buildings and landmarks.

East Midtown Rezoning Area

The City is in the process of two new major transit projects that will bring even more commuters through Grand Central.  To complement the new transportation infrastructure, the City has proposed a dramatic plan to reshape zoning in East Midtown.  The plan creates a streamlined zoning process that will fund a dedicated pedestrian improvement program, encourage higher densities, and promote the creation of new iconic environmentally sustainable buildings.  It may not be Transit Oriented Development in the strictest sense, the plan is the City's latest effort to make sure transit and development are harmonious and mutually reinforcing.

East Midtown concentrates transit service and office space together, making it some of the most valuable real estate in the City.  However, the area has been unable to attract new developments recently, with only two new building permits in the last decade.  The office building stock is on average over 70 years old, and the modern buildings needed to compete in the global real estate market are in short supply.  Additionally, the pedestrian environment in the area surrounding Grand Central Terminal is insufficient for the high volumes of people that use the sidewalks and tunnels.  The rezoning plan for East Midtown encourages new and innovative commercial buildings, and allows for higher densities while promoting pedestrian improvements.  The plan emphasizes the mutually-reinforcing relationship between a strong commercial base to continuing transportation investments.  The plan provides the land-use complement to the East Side Access rail project and the Second Avenue Subway project, scheduled to be completed in 2019 and 2016 respectively.  If approved, the new zoning would "sunrise" into effect July 2017.

The rezoning plan sets up an earned as-of-right zoning framework.  Like many zoning plans, the Floor Area Ratio (FAR) acts as the principal regulation for building size. The FAR is the ratio of the total building floor area to the area of its zoning lot.

FAR Explained

This system works by setting a base maximum FAR, and allowing developers to increase the allowable FAR through contributions to a District Improvement Fund and by purchasing rights from a historic building.  Developers on qualifying sites (generally, that span a whole block face) will be able to build to a max of 14.4 to 24 FAR, depending on location within the East Midtown zone.  The highest densities are allowed in the area immediately around Grand Central Terminal, with lower densities further away and on mid-block lots. This process will not require any special permits, and should be much more streamlined for developers than the process it replaces.

Earned Density Zones in East Midtown

Even higher FARs of 30 will be allowed with a special permit (subject to full public review) available to "superior buildings" that add distinctive design elements to the skyline and meet higher sustainability standards.

Special Superior Building Density Zoning

Key to program is the District Improvement Fund (DIF) whereby developers can pay a flat rate to increase their allowable density, and this money is invested in area-wide pedestrian improvements that the city has prioritized.  The DIF will fund a number of pedestrian environment improvements, including usual streetscape design elements.  It will also focus on the expansion of the sidewalks serving Grand Central, as well as the below-ground pedestrian network.  Some of the pedestrian choke points reverberate throughout New York's transportation system, causing crowding on platforms that leads to increased subway dwell time and results in slowdowns throughout the subway network.  The plan also makes it easier for the owners of historic buildings to sell their unused FAR potential, as another way for developers to increase their earned FAR.

Transfer of Development Rights Explained

The East Midtown plan creates a more predictable, welcoming zoning environment for developers while also ensuring smart investments to improve the local streets.  One of the goals is to increase new development, but some are concerned that the plan will result in the destruction of too many of the older buildings in the area.  The Draft Environmental Impact Statement was recently released, and the public comment period is open.  Only time will tell how successful NYC is at creating a more responsive zoning system that links land-use and transportation.

Read more of the plan on

Learn about the concern for historical buildings:

See East Midtown's buildings up close and personal in this gallery:

Thanks to Brett Lezon for editing this post. 


  1. Tying FAR benefits for developers with contributions to a District Improvement Fund is a win-win for everyone involved. In the short term, the City gets funding to make the kinds of necessary and expensive improvements to the pedestrian environment that are normally too costly to justify using general funds. Spacious and attractive sidewalks and pedestrian amenities like benches and trash cans are essential to fostering a lively, walkable area around a transit center; however, when cities have a backlog of critical safety improvements to make elsewhere in the city, upgrades such as these tend to get classified as luxury improvements that are last on the list to get funded. But by requiring developers to invest in their surrounding environment, the City is able to generate dedicated funding for these areas that can't be allocated elsewhere.

    Paying into a DIF is ultimately a good deal for the developers as well; if their building is seen as being in a walkable, charming area their property will be valued higher. This has been the case in Vancouver, B.C. where a similar strategy was employed. Developers were initially opposed to city policy that required them to pay into a DIF in order to obtain higher FAR for residential high-rises in the downtown; however, when these funds were put into developing small parks adjacent to their buildings, it increased the demand for their apartment units.

    Requiring public investment can ultimately benefits everyone but the up-front benefit of FAR bonuses seems to be the critical carrot for getting developer buy-in. NYC is taking a smart approach to funding ground level improvements - let's hope that NYC developers take the city up on this offer.

  2. Interesting article. I agree w/ Rebecca that this is a smart way to tackle a planning issue that often gets left on the back burner. I look forward to seeing how this plays out. Personally, this area is one I try to avoid at all costs when in NY, because it feels overwhelming and exhausting, due to poor pedestrian facilities and glaring lack of tree cover or any green space at all.

    I wonder if there are provisions made for public space further than just benches and similar? I believe there was a program in NY to provide tax breaks or similar incentives to developers who accommodated for public space in their building design. Is a similar thing being pursued here? I wonder if the provision for "usual streetscape design elements" includes public space as well?


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