Dolman: NYC is ready for another growth spurt
On a clear night, from the Long Island Expressway, the Manhattan skyline looms with imposing authority -- a great battlement of diamond-like lights anchored by the Empire State and Chrysler buildings.
From the right perspective, the twinkling towers can feel like a spectral force of nature. But they're really a testament to economic power, advanced structural engineering, and -- yes -- great pride and ego.
I'm not surprised by the howl that has erupted over New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's plan to rezone East Midtown and make it easier to tear down old buildings and build bigger ones. He's threatening to mess with the postcard image of Manhattan that's currently in our heads. But I fervently hope he succeeds.
Most cities, like most people, tend to stagnate when they fail to adapt, when they get struck in a particular era and never change. East Midtown -- the area between Second and Fifth avenues and 39th and 57th streets -- is in danger of that.
"The building stock is over 70 years old. We don't want it to become antique before the district loses some of its aura," said Robert Yaro, president of the Regional Plan Association, an independent quality-of-life group for the tri-state area.
The area has seen only two new office buildings in the last 10 years. At the same time, the building stock in rival cities like Tokyo and London has become more modern and competitive.
Top-end tenants prefer the more open floor plans of modern buildings, says the Department of City Planning. East Midtown's older buildings have floors obstructed by interior columns and low ceilings.
Using zoning incentives, Bloomberg would "seed" the 78 blocks of East Midtown with modern, state-of-the-art office towers. He would put new developments with the greatest densities on large sites in the vicinity of Grand Central Terminal.
Buildings with slightly lower densities would go along the Park Avenue corridor.
Critics worry that the taller buildings might cast landmark structures like the Chrysler Building or St. Patrick's Cathedral into perpetual shadow.
Without new esplanades and parks to go with the upward push, a sense of a human scale on the streets might be lost.
The East Midtown build out might challenge the resurgence of downtown and revitalization plans for the Far West Side.
Transportation, sidewalks, streets and sanitation services could face serious stress from the 16,000 new workers the build out is expected to attract.
To be sure, planners should make sure that East Midtown's architectural icons aren't lost in gloomy shadows. Creation of well-designed small parks could help bring a more human scale to the streetscape.
And the renaissance of Lower Manhattan is well along -- with millions of square feet of up-to-date, environmentally sustainable office space coming on line soon. It won't likely be vulnerable to an East Midtown boom.
As for transportation, East Midtown sees a daily influx of 230,000 workers now. Would an estimated 16,000 more be a deal-breaker of a problem? No.
New York's City Council will need to sign off on the mayor's proposal, and sites will need to be assembled, and buildings will need to be built.
This could take eons.
By the time New Yorkers put shovels in dirt, Long Island Rail Road riders will have direct access to Midtown's Grand Central Terminal. Redevelopment on the Far West Side will be well under way. And East Side subway riders might even be taking the new Second Avenue line.
But best of all, the expansion could mean a wealth of new jobs for Long Islanders.
Let the rezoning begin.
Joseph Dolman was deputy editorial page editor for New York Newsday.