R&E April 2018 Newsletter

On Behalf of | Apr 1, 2018 | Newsletters

Newsletter Exclusive Article:

East Midtown Rezoning

written by  Frank E. Chaney

Since its inception more than four years ago to its final approval last year, the East Midtown rezoning was touted as providing the perfect mix of zoning incentives that would help rejuvenate both the building stock and the transportation network in the 73-block area around Grand Central Terminal. Early proponents, such as Mary Ann Tighe of CBRE and Amanda Burden, the then Chair of the City Planning Commission, envisioned East Midtown as home to a raft of gleaming supertall office towers rivaling those of other world-class business districts such as Singapore, Hong Kong and London. Some, however, thought the linkage between new development and the provision of improvements to the transportation network was too tenuous. Others had concerns about the City’s proposal to enter the market as a seller of development rights. As a result, as time ran out on the Bloomberg Administration, it also ran out on the first iteration of the East Midtown rezoning.

The de Blasio administration essentially started over, working from the ground up, first through a steering committee headed by Manhattan Borough President Gayle Brewer and then City Council member Dan Gardonick, and then through the Department of City Planning, working from the recommendations of the steering committee, to devise East Midtown redux – a revised plan strengthening the linkage between transportation improvements and new development and substituting a development contribution on the transfer of landmark development rights for the direct sale of development rights by the City. It was approved by the City Planning Commission and then the City Council in August 2017.

The new East Midtown rules offer a number of significant incentives for development of new office towers and the enlargement of existing office buildings on what are defined as “qualifying sites” – sites that have frontage on a wide street, at least 75 feet of which, at the time of development, is clear of buildings. First among these incentives is a significant increase in allowable floor area ratio (“FAR”) a number by which the lot area is multiplied to arrive at the maximum amount of floor area that may be developed. Prior to the rezoning, base FARs in East Midtown were generally either 12.0 or 15.0 and the maximum FAR with bonuses and transferred development rights (“TDRs”) from landmark buildings capped at 21.6. Under the new East Midtown regulations, while the base FARs remain the same, the maximum FARs with bonuses and landmark TDRs range from 24.6 to 30.0, depending on location.

For qualifying sites in Transit Improvement Zone Subareas, the maximum FAR may be reached by a combination of making improvements to the area’s transit system and with landmark TDRs. A minimum FAR of transit improvement bonus must be provided before additional floor area may be added using landmark TDRs.

Under the new East Midtown regulations, landmark TDRs (which under the old regulations were “free”) require a contribution to the newly established Public Realm Improvement Fund, a dedicated fund for financing improvements to East Midtown’s above- and below-ground transit and transportation network. The required contribution is equal to 20% of the TDR purchase price or $307.45 per square foot of TDR, whichever is greater.

There are also incentives for sites that are not qualifying sites. One of the reasons that a large percentage of East Midtown’s office buildings are more than 70 years old, is that they were built under the old zoning code, which did not use FAR and therefore had no limit on floor area. Consequently, many older buildings have floor areas in excess of what the FARs of the current zoning code allows. If such buildings were demolished, a new building on the same site could not be rebuilt to the same FAR. In essence, the excess floor area would be lost, creating a significant disincentive to replacing aging and outdated buildings.

Under the new East Midtown rules, however, such sites – many, if not most, of which are non-qualifying sites – may be redeveloped to the pre-existing, excess FAR, provided a contribution is made to the Public Realm Improvement Fund at the rate of $307.45 per square foot of the floor area in excess of the current FAR.

The recent announcement by J.P. Morgan Chase that it will demolish its headquarters building at 270 Park Avenue and build a new building of approximately 2.5 million square feet, more than twice the size of the existing building, has been greeted with great enthusiasm as the first of the many “world class” office buildings the new East Midtown zoning regulations were designed to encourage. In addition to providing the required transit improvements, Chase will utilize approximately 600,000 square feet of TDRs from Grand Central Terminal and another 100,000 square feet from St. Bart’s Church on Park Avenue.

While the Chase announcement was exciting and welcome news, there were reasons to temper one’s enthusiasm as to its significance. 270 Park Avenue was not on the list of 30 sites identified in the East Midtown Environmental Impact Statement (“EIS”) as “potential” or “projected” development sites and differs from many, if not most of them, in one key respect: it’s a single-user building. Being the sole occupant, Chase can vacate the building and commence redevelopment as soon as it wants. Buildings having multiple tenants with leases running over five to ten years (or longer) must go through the time-consuming and complicated business of either buying out the leases or waiting for them to expire, one by one, over time. Either option requires patience – and pockets sufficiently deep to carry the building while income dries up. The hope is, of course, that the East Midtown rezoning will make the gain worth the pain. The gain under the old zoning was marginal – an increase in the FAR of only two or three. But under the new East Midtown rules, the FAR gain can be 10 or more. While the potential is definitely there, it may not be as readily achievable as in the case of 270 Park. But that by itself is no reason to be less than optimistic. Change on the scale envisioned by the East Midtown rezoning doesn’t happen overnight.

The Chase announcement regarding 270 Park Avenue was not the only good news. Within weeks, it was announced that the owners of 405 Park Avenue were in contract to purchase 30,000 square feet of TDRs from St. Patrick’s Cathedral to be used in a gut rehab and enlargement that will add four stories and 205,000 square feet to the building, utilizing a combination of transit improvement bonus floor area and, perhaps, additional landmark TDRs.

Other buildings rumored to be considering taking advantage of the new East Midtown zoning rules include the Pfizer headquarters on 42nd Street, the MTA headquarters on Madison Avenue and the Roosevelt Hotel on 45th Street.

What seems clear is that East Midtown is set to follow the examples of Greenpoint-Williamsburg, West Chelsea and Hudson Yards, where City Planning rezonings triggered significant new investment and development. If the announcement of new developments continues at the rate they have started, East Midtown may eclipse them all.