The Battle for Building Intensification around Grand Central Station
The Wall Street Journal has an interesting report, "Reinventing Midtown," on the NYC Office of Planning's work on rezoning the area around Grand Central Station, to allow for taller buildings, and the demolition of "old" buildings that many people would consider "historic," but haven't been designated as historic buildings, with special protections limiting the likelihood of demolition. From the article:
Mayor Michael Bloomberg 's ambitious Midtown East rezoning plan envisions a future of soaring new skyscrapers in the area around Grand Central Terminal that would revitalize a district that has seen little construction in the last decade.
But there is a nostalgic vision of Grand Central and its environs that the plan may also threaten: of the early 1900s when New York was growing up around the new station. Back then, buildings like the Graybar Building on Lexington Avenue and the Pershing Square Building joined the Beaux Arts masterpiece of Grand Central as symbols of a brash, hopeful city seizing its place on the global stage.
The rezoning would give the developers and property owners incentives to replace these and other existing properties with new ones. Proponents of the plan point out that the average building in the district is 73 years old and only two major buildings have been developed within its bounds in the last decade. ... But preservationists are worried about what may be destroyed in New York's rush to modernize. ...
The Midtown East rezoning plan is the last significant development initiative of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. After rezoning huge swatches of other parts of the city in its first 11 years, his administration has turned its gaze to one of its most dutiful business districts in its last months.
The preservation issue is tricky because the romance of the area around Grand Central stems from more than simply a few trophies alone; its urban appeal derives, in several places, from the harmonious interaction of properties, and preservationists can point to the lasting harm that rude additions can inflict.
Triumph of the City by Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, and he is against historic preservation over this very issue, that it prevents from building taller and denser where the market demands it.
(Despite my historic preservation leanings, the book is quite good, a basic primer in urban economics, a subject on which most people weighing in on urban issues seem to be under-educated.)
He argues that to maintain competitiveness, cities shouldn't be restricting the ability to build and exercise economic activity, because ultimately this damages the local economy and position of the city vis-a-vis suburban competitors.
On the other hand, Glaeser argues that it is urban vitality which attracts new businesses and creative people, and urban vitality is in part created by the mix of attractive, usually older buildings constructed before 1945, which add to the historicity and identity of communities.
Still, as much as he respects Jane Jacobs' arguments about cities and economic vitality, he doesn't fully buy into her precept that "old buildings," because they have been paid off and have lower running costs, are essential to the support of innovation and new business development.
The Times has an article on the subject as well, "2 Views of Buildings Around Grand Central: Special or Just Old." It highlights the battle between intensifiers and preservers.
The Real Estate Board of New York produced a report, Icons, Placeholders and Leftovers: Midtown East Report, that says none of the old buildings are worth preserving and in fact, are deteriorating and have met the end of their useful life, while the Municipal Art Society, the city's leading preservation and livability organization, has produced a report, East Midtown: A Bold Vision for the Future, arguing the opposite of REBNY, listing a number of buildings that should be landmarked and focused on how historic buildings contribute place value to the district and the city.
One of the advantages of DC's height limit is that it spreads business around, so that other real estate submarkets (Dupont Circle, Golden Triangle, Union Station, M St. Southeast, Southwest, NoMA) can attract new buildings and tenants. (On the other hand, you can argue that this unnecessarily changes neighborhoods as well. For example, most of the large warehouse buildings that had been built north of Union Station to support warehousing and related businesses leveraging access to railroad transportation, are long gone.)
I do wonder about that with regard to the proposal to allow even greater intensification around Grand Central Station.
Besides the fact that for the most part that the capacity of all modes (roads, railroads--although a connection for the Long Island Railroad is being added to the Station called the East Side Access Project, subways, sidewalks) in the Grand Central Station district are at or near capacity and for the most part aren't capable of being significantly expanded capacity, New York City also has plans to do completely new developments over old railyards, at Hudson Yards ("Already Wooing Tenants in Hudson Yards," New York Times) and Atlantic Yards ("The 30-Minute Interview - Bruce C. Ratner," New York Times), plus the rebuilding of the World Trade Center.
Hudson Yards rendering, left.
Like how having a height limit in Downtown DC has allowed other business districts to develop, I think that allowing a significant addition of density to the Grand Central Station business district (because face it, wouldn't you rather be located there than in Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn, etc.) will end up coming at the expense of redevelopment of places like Hudson Yards, that maybe the city wants to encourage spreading development around the city, rather than locating most of it in one place.
At the same time, New York City needs to be conscious of the reality that for the most part, new large businesses capable of absorbing large amounts of commercial space aren't developing in the same way they did 90 years ago, business enterprises are shrinking in size, and the amount of space per employee is downsizing as well, also reducing demand for commercial space.
From the Zurich Insurance report Space reductions, reconfigurations and renovations:
The recent economic crisis forced many companies to evaluate their office space requirements in order to reduce costs, decrease overhead, mitigate rising energy costs and enable more efficient use of resources overall. Companies were already moving towards allocating less square feet per employee before the recent surge in employee layoffs. In the 1970s, American corporations typically allocated 500 to 700 square feet per employee. Today’s average is a little more than 200 square feet per person, and some say the space allocation could hit a mere 50 square feet by 2015.
Not to mention how after 9/11 and Superstorm Sandy, more businesses are conscious of shifting business locations as an element of risk management.
Plus, Hoboken (hit hard by Superstorm Sandy), areas of Brooklyn (this has been a multi-decade trend, see e.g. this 1989 article from the NYT, "Ceremony Heralds a $1 Billion Project in Brooklyn"), and other outside of Manhattan locations are being utilized for back office operations at lower rents per square foot. (Similarly, Northern Virginia developers are marketing hard against DC for law firms and other businesses to "rightsize" their space utilization and only locate the highest value activities in DC, shifting significant portions of their business to lower cost locations in Virginia.)
From an academic perspective, this is an interesting argument, and brings Glaeser's arguments to life (it also brings to life the arguments of the book Planning the Capitalist City, and the contradictions between the interests of capital and democracy).
Yet, these are decisions that ultimately aren't academic at all, re/shaping the city for generations.
-- "Grand Central Hits Century Mark," WNET-TV, Channel 13