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Bloomberg pushes a plan to let midtown soar

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NEW YORK » London, Tokyo and other metropolises have created central business districts with forests of skyscrapers in recent years, seeking to meet the needs of globe-trotting corporate tenants.

But New York’s premier district, the 70-block area around Grand Central Terminal, has lagged, Bloomberg officials say, hampered by zoning rules, decades old, that have limited the height of buildings.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg wants to overhaul these rules so that buildings in midtown Manhattan can soar as high as those elsewhere. New towers could eventually cast shadows over landmarks across the area, including St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. They could rise above the 59-story MetLife Building and even the 77-story Chrysler Building.

Bloomberg’s proposal reflects his effort to put his stamp on the city well after his tenure ends in December 2013. He wants the City Council to adopt the new zoning, for what is being called Midtown East, by October 2013, with the first permits for new buildings granted four years later.

His administration says that without the changes, the neighborhood around Grand Central will not retain its reputation as "the best business address in the world" because 300 of its roughly 400 buildings are more than 50 years old. These structures also lack the large column-free spaces, tall ceilings and environmental features now sought by corporate tenants.

The rezoning — from 39th Street to 57th Street on the East Side — would make it easier to demolish aging buildings in order to make way for state of-the-art towers.

Without it, "the top Class A tenants who have been attracted to the area in the past would begin to look elsewhere for space," the administration says in its proposal.

The proposal has stirred criticism from some urban planners, community boards and City Council members, who have contended that the mayor has acted hastily. They said they were concerned about the impact of taller towers in an already dense district where buildings, public spaces, streets, sidewalks and subways have long remained unchanged.

Bloomberg has encouraged high-rise development in industrial neighborhoods, including the Far West Side of Manhattan, the waterfront in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and in Long Island City, Queens. But with the proposal for Midtown, which is working its way through environmental and public reviews, he is tackling the city’s commercial heart.

"Unlocking the development potential in this area will generate historic opportunities for investment in New York City," Deputy Mayor Robert K. Steel said.

The initiative would, in some cases, allow developers to build towers twice the size now permitted in the Grand Central area. The owner of the 19-story Roosevelt Hotel at Madison and 45th Street could replace it with a 58-story tower under the proposed rules. Current regulations permit no more than 30 floors.

Administration officials acknowledged that the current market for new office buildings across Manhattan was relatively weak. For example, a 40-story office tower in Midtown Manhattan, which was completed in 2010, is still not full. But the officials said major changes in zoning were intended to make it possible to build when demand returned, as history suggests it inevitably will.

In promoting the proposal, the administration has repeatedly stressed that Midtown Manhattan needed to keep pace with business districts in other world capitals. And New York does compete with London for some financial firms.

But many of New York’s prominent corporations, law firms and other businesses are not about to decamp for a spectacular skyscraper in Hong Kong anytime soon. Part of the obsession with taller buildings is about prestige and worldwide bragging rights, for size and architectural supremacy.

By the city’s estimates, the new towers would be home to an additional 16,000 employees in a neighborhood that now has 230,000 office workers. That could strain the Lexington Avenue subway line, which runs through Grand Central and is already operating well above capacity.

"Massive new buildings could be constructed," said Michael B. Gerrard, an environmental lawyer working with the Municipal Art Society to review the proposal.

"They’re proceeding at a breakneck pace," he said, referring to Bloomberg aides. "The administration wants to get all this done before the gate closes."

Vikki Barbero, chairwoman of Community Board 5, said she was concerned that the proposal could undercut two existing initiatives: on the Far West Side, where a 50-block area was rezoned in 2005 for high-rise development, and downtown, where developers are seeking tenants for the World Trade Center site.

The proposal would have to be approved by the City Council. The Council speaker, Christine C. Quinn, who is expected to be a leading Democratic candidate for mayor, has declined to express a position on it before the review process is finished.

But Councilman Daniel R. Garodnick, D-Manhattan, said the Bloomberg administration had failed to consider a host of substantive issues before plunging ahead.

"We need to address the impact of thousands of new office workers," Garodnick said. "There are implications for transportation, sanitation and public safety."

Amanda M. Burden, a close Bloomberg adviser who is director of the City Planning Department, has rebuffed requests from community boards and elected officials to slow down the process.

City Planning, which has rezoned 116 neighborhoods under the Bloomberg administration, played down the impact of the proposal, saying that only a limited number of building sites would qualify for the new zoning, perhaps 20. Critics respond that the potential was far higher.

The real estate industry has urged the administration to move quickly, fearing that the next mayor might not be as sympathetic.

The Real Estate Board of New York, the industry’s lobbying group, generally supports the proposal, though it favors expanding the district boundaries and allowing bigger buildings without public review.

"We’re pretty happy with the direction this is going in," said Steven Spinola, president of the real estate board. "The details need to be ironed out."

Under the proposal, the city would essentially sell the right to build bigger towers, especially near Grand Central Terminal and along Park Avenue. In a first step, builders would pay the city an unspecified amount for a "district improvement bonus" in order to go 20 percent above the existing limits. The revenue would be used to improve subway connections and public spaces in the neighborhood.

A developer could then purchase additional development rights from either the city, or from landmarks like Grand Central Terminal itself that have unused development rights.

The city’s Budget Office has questioned whether the plan would undermine the initiative at Hudson Yards, on the Far West Side of Manhattan. The city issued $3 billion in bonds to build a subway extension to Hudson Yards and a new boulevard, but the flow of revenue from the sale of development rights there to pay for the bonds has been slow.

So City Planning inserted a so-called sunrise provision, in which developers in the Grand Central area would have to wait five years before they could start building. Presumably, that would reduce the competition between the two areas and leave time for Hudson Yards to gather momentum.

Entities outside the Grand Central area, meanwhile, are pressing the administration to broaden its boundaries. St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Central Synagogue and St. Bartholomew’s Church, which are all farther north, want the same ability as Grand Central Terminal to sell unused development rights. But some developers and city officials question whether the value of development rights would decline if supply is increased.

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