Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

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.

It's interesting because I finally got around to reading 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.

Right: a previous proposal to build around Grand Central Station was warded off by the MAS.

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.

And it's reasonable but ironic to consider this battle in the context of the 100th anniversary of Grand Central Station.

-- "Grand Central Hits Century Mark," WNET-TV, Channel 13

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At 9:18 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

You've got to factor ownership in. Both in terms of land, the buildings, and the loans. Sometime the same, often not.

I'll have to start this one, but still a bit disappointed with Cities in Full, as we discussed. That being said a good book is like a blog post these days, you get one good idea out of it.

Is there any evidence that NYC is LESS competitve as a result of real estate? I say it is losing to London as a financal hub for other reasons. Also while dynaism is great not sure it applies to downtown commercial districts.

Anna Saxeian had a point long ago that rent in SV has driven tech innovation elsewhere, but in the world of Facebook/Google/Twitter/Apple I am not sure that argument is flying. I'd still rather by in SV than Hyderbad.

At 1:21 PM, Anonymous Richard Layman said...

I think that EG's book is just a good restatement of urban economics in an accessible way.

Wrt his HP argument, it's relevant only to a couple of submarkets in the entire US, DC is one, parts of Brooklyn and Manhattan, SF (although they have lots of developable space on Market Street and SOMA), maybe parts of Boston.

So it pretty much doesn't matter.

But as EE says, "developers are like sharks, if they stop building, they die" so developers are fine with churn, they still make money.

But the issue is should heights around GCS be the primary interest of NYC, or should they be focusing on other stuff.

wrt Hyderbad, I did think his argument about 3rd world countries like India adopting anti-height building regulations to be pretty interesting.

It's actually proof of what I say in DC is the value of sustainable mobility, it allows for more intensive use of space and ease of getting around, despite the number of people, although of course there is an upper limit--which in a smaller household scenario compared to the old days, is probably somewhat below Mayor Gray's goal of 250,000 more people (that would be about 850,000) while Mayor Williams was content to seek a population of around 660,000-680,000.

At 1:33 PM, Anonymous Richard Layman said...

oh, wrt EG and Saxenian... EG recounted, incorrectly, Saxenian's argument. He said that she said Rte. 128 would decline because it wasn't urban. That's not what she said, she said it was big hidebound orgs, that grew out of defense contracting, vs. the more nimble companies that grew out of Stanford.

And as you point out, SV is not urban and rents are high.

But it's still more nimble, I guess.

I saw a presentation a couple weeks ago on the Market St. revit. program in SF, and while you disagree with my analysis of NSF and ArCo, I was thinking that they need to move more in that direction in SF, to get that kind of revitalization energy.

As you point out, DC has the advantage of the fed agencies as commercial intensity. SF lost a lot of that, and needs to bring it back.

Positioning as the urban Silicon Valley is SF's competitive positioning to my way of thinking. If H St. LL is still reading, he can weigh in on that idea, he knows SF better than I.

Now that I have just about wrapped up jury duty, I'll finally output those pieces related to the Philly conference.

At 7:56 PM, Blogger Benjamin Hemric said...

Goog post!

Although normally pro-growth (and anti-zoning), it seems to me that the proposed Midtown East rezoning is very misguided, for many of the same reasons mentioned in your post. (A recent letter of mine along these lines is chronologically the first one in the "New York Times" thread.)

However, I'm not sure if I know what you meant by the following in the above comment (1:21 pm):

"But the issue is should heights [light and air?] around GCS be the primary interest of NYC, or should they [who?] be focusing on other stuff [like . . . ?]."

Benjamin Hemric
Thurs., Feb. 28, 2013, 7:55 pm

At 8:51 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I meant as one of NYC's foremost economic development priorities.

At 11:44 PM, Blogger Benjamin Hemric said...



Sorry for the typo in previous comment -- in the first word yet!

Just hoping to double check on your meaning, as people from different cities (Washington [?] vs. NYC) can see things differently and therefore use words differently -- and I suspect that this may be the case here, at least to a certain extent.

I know there's a great focus in DC on heights and height limits, but in the East Midtown rezoning proposal, it seems to me (and I could be wrong here) that height limits are not really the focus of the debate here. Instead the debate is about "density" which, while obviously related to height, is not exactly the same thing.

For instance, one concern that I have is that in order to adequately "provide" for increased density, developers are going to be allowed / encouraged to build "plazas," which I think are very destructive to the city's streetscape -- especially the wonderful classic "New York" streetscape around Grand Central Terminal (right-angled streets with stores opening right onto the street itself, and shaped by the high streetwalls of ornamented and "windowed" high density, high-rise structures). The actual height of the possible new buildings isn't so much of a concern, at least to me; it's how the buildings interact with the streetscape. In other words are the new designs (supposedly) "increasing" the capacity of the area's streets by modernizing, over-designing (according to the current fads popular among bureaucrats) and over specialilzing -- and thereby actually deadening -- them?

To be continued.

Benjamin Hemric
Thurs.,Feb. 28, 2013, 11:20 pm

At 11:45 PM, Blogger Benjamin Hemric said...


A lot of the older large buildings in this area have a terrific street presence, but since they were built before modern HVAC and lighting etc., they also have what are to developers "wasteful" light courts -- and so developers want to replace such buildings with "more efficient" block shaped buildings. In order to make this economically feasible (to empty, tear down and then rebuild) they feel the city should grant them higher allowances of floor area. While this would likely mean taller buidings -- especially if developers are allowed / encouraged to build anti-urban plazas -- the height isn't the problem (at least for me). It's the shape of the building, and how the building, especially the lower floors interacts with the streetscape. Not only is there the "plaza" problem, but many new skyscrapers also go for enormous, street-killing "prestige" lobbies, etc. Plus, a lot of new buildings these days also gravitate towards reductionist modern facades (especially relfective glass) which are also street-killing. In contrast, most of the area's tall older buildings, like the Chrysler Building, have great streetwalls, stores and ornamentation that make them terrific additions to the streetscape. So height is not really the main factor, so it seems to me.

Also being overlooked here, too, is how instrusive and discretionary ("manipulative") the proposed zoning is. It's not just a case of zoning limits being raised for any builder who would meet certain objective standards. Under the proposed new zoning builders will eligible for FAR bonuses if their designs are "special" -- which, given past experience, means if the designs are especially aesthetically pleasing to certain bureaucrats and political bodies. Again, given past experience, this does not bode well for the development of a healthy, urbane city district.

So, given these considerations, that's why I'm not sure what you mean by your comment above.

Being a New Yorker, here's how I would re-word it to reflect MY own concerns (don't know if you would agree or not):

"But the issue is should [creating new large floor plate office buildings by allowing for increased FAR in an already high FAR district] around GCS be the primary interest of [people concerned about the economic health of] NYC [-- as these proposals seem to be cannibalizing a successful district that is already among the highest density districts in the world], or should [such people, really] be focusing on other stuff[, like fostering higher densities in OTHER parts of the city that would actually greatly benefit from it]."

Benjamin Hemric
Thurs., Feb. 28, 2013, 11:22 pm

At 11:53 PM, Blogger Benjamin Hemric said...

P.S. -- Should also quicky add that others have other concerns about density: how it will affect subway stations, etc. But again, the concern isn't so much the height of the new buildings, but the effects of density and the city's plans to deal with those effects.

Benjamin Hemric
Thurs., Feb. 28, 2013, 11:49 pm

At 11:13 AM, Anonymous Michael Lewyn said...

I live in NYC, and the notion that the GC area is overbuilt strikes me as hard to believe. As I walk around, I notice that the east side of midtown actually feels much LESS intense than the west side around Penn Station.

At 7:19 PM, Blogger Benjamin Hemric said...


While personally speaking I'm not opposed to added density in East Midtown, in order to better understand the controversy and the issues involved, I think there are at least three (?) things to consider:

1) Having attended yesterday's Dept. of City Planning presentation on this topic to the three local community boards, one of the concerns of those who are opposed to added density has to do with how it would affect access to mass transit in the area -- in other words, how added density would affect crowding on subway platforms, crowding on sidewalks (especially, say on Lexington Avenue, which has unusually narrow sidewalks), etc.

Plus, given the extension of the No. 7 line, the completion of the East Side Access program, etc., local residents (and office workers) the fear is that current problems (whatever they may be) are not the worst of it.

Although I'm often in the area, I rarely take the subway (I walk) so it's hard for me to judge on this. But I suspect one has to live or work in the area and regularly take the most over taxed mass transit in order to judge for oneself (to see whether complaints are true or overexaggerated). From my personal experience (and again I don't use the subways there that often), present conditions seem crowded but not intolerable -- but then again I am not a regular user of subways in the area.

To be continued.

Benjamin Hemric
Fri., March 1, 2013, 7:15 pm

At 7:25 PM, Blogger Benjamin Hemric said...


2) Another concern about added density is that added density will crowd out diversity in the area and also prevent (or delay) other parts of NYC that could greatly USE added density to get it. This is what I consider to be the Jane Jacobs "self-destruction of diversity" argument, and won't go on about it since it's been mentioned above.

To be continued.

Benjamin Hemric
Fri., March 1, 2013, 7:30 pm

At 7:30 PM, Blogger Benjamin Hemric said...


3) My concerns about density have less to do with density itself than with what urban planners intend to do to mitigate what they see as a density problem.

Looking at the architectural "solutions" that have been presented to the MAS (which, I believe can be seen online) and judging from what the lead planner is saying, added density isn't the problem, but what planners intend to do to "mitigate" the added density is.

Benjamin Hemric
Fri., March 1, 2013, 7:35 pm

At 8:50 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

thanks for these contributions.

I would agree for the most part with your arguments.

especially that "plazas" etc. tend to be very destructive of the street wall and adequate urbanism.

The work that Kaplan(?) did on the privately owned public spaces focused on the spaces as private but public.

The work could have equally focused on the type, style, and design of spaces (it did of course). For the most part, those spaces fail because of the design. Not just 'cause they're privately owned and the owners don't care about how the spaces serve non-tenants.

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At 8:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Glad to see that a few of my more pithy aphorisms have a lasting effect (was going to say "impact" but loathe that word as much as I do the word "vibrant")... % ^ }

Thank you for this very thorough and intriguing analysis and report. Much food for thought and many approaches that could be applied successfully here in DC.

As I have testified numerous times in various public venues, DC public officials have repeatedly confused economic activity with economic development. Until they take the time to do some legitimate research and analysis and figure out what comprises real economic development, they will continue to engage in hackneyed real estate development "churn" while the rest of the world moves on.
Reading about New York City reminds me that I've been meaning to again mention in this space my idol Hazel Henderson, the author of "The Politics of the Solar Age" and "Redefining Wealth and Progress: New Ways to Measure Economic, Social, and Environmental Change," an alternative to Jane Jacobs. They were both shaped by seminal experiences in mid-20th-Century NYC and while I loved the scope and narrative of "The Death and Life, etc.," over time I have found Henderson's message much more useful in countering a lot of the semantic mumbo jumbo issued by the DC bureaucrats and politicians. (More on this when I can string a coherent sentence or two together.)



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