Council Subcommittee Hears Testimony on One Vanderbilt

Councilmember Dan Garodnick led the questioning on the One Vanderbilt proposal. Image credit: William Alatriste / New York City Council

Councilmember Dan Garodnick led the questioning on the One Vanderbilt proposal. Image credit: William Alatriste / New York City Council

Representatives of the project and the Department of City Planning spoke during a four-hour hearing.  On April 13, 2015 the City Council Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises held a public hearing on One Vanderbilt, a proposed 1,450-foot commercial tower in East Midtown, as well as an accompanying proposal to rezone five blocks of Vanderbilt Avenue to create the Vanderbilt Corridor.  The building will be located adjacent to Grand Central Terminal, bounded by East 42nd Street to the south, East 43rd Street to the north, Madison Avenue to the west, and Vanderbilt Avenue to the east.  The rezoning intends to facilitate commercial development on the west side of Vanderbilt Avenue between East 42nd and East 47th Streets, and designate Vanderbilt Avenue between East 42nd and East 43rd Streets as a public pedestrian space.  As a part of the overall proposal, project applicant SL Green will invest $210 million in transit and infrastructure improvements to Grand Central.

On December 11, 2014 the Multi-Board Task Force on East Midtown Rezoning, comprised of Manhattan Community Board 5 and Community Board 6, voted to recommend disapproval of the One Vanderbilt proposal. On January 28, 2015 Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer recommended approval with conditions to improve pedestrian flow and energy efficiency at the project site.  On March 30, 2015 the City Planning Commission voted to approve One Vanderbilt, adopting modifications proposed by Borough President Brewer.

At the hearing, Edith Hsu-Chen, director of the Department of City Planning’s Manhattan office, began by testifying the Vanderbilt proposal as necessary to preserve the long-term viability of the City’s preeminent commercial district.  Ms. Hsu-Chen described the “virtual halt” in East Midtown’s commercial development over the last twenty years, stating the area’s average office building is seventy-five years old and structurally ill-suited for present-day office needs.  She further testified the high congestion and frequent delays in the Grand Central transit hub discourage modern businesses looking to open offices in transit-rich areas.  Mark Holliday, SL Green CEO, and Rob Schiffer, managing director at SL Green, echoed previous testimony on the necessity of the Vanderbilt proposal and the value it would add to the district.  (See previous CityLand coverage here.) Project architect James Von Klemperer of Kohn Pedersen Fox testified on the project design, emphasizing the tapered nature of the tower to facilitate bringing light and air down to the street level, as well as the project team’s close coordination with City Planning and community boards on the best use of the public transit hall.

Councilmember Dan Garodnick, who represents East Midtown, questioned the project representatives closely about all aspects of their proposal, beginning with Ms. Hsu-Chen and whether there were any guarantees One Vanderbilt and future Corridor buildings would provide sufficient public benefits for receiving their FAR bonuses.  Ms. Hsu-Chen stressed every Corridor building application will go through individual review before the City Planning Commission and City Council, granting each body authority to scrutinize whether the application merits the bonus for its proposed benefits.  She further added the text amendment contains “very exacting and demanding” findings for the public improvement benefits, and the Commission and Council must determine a project meets these criteria before qualifying for the bonus.  The Councilmember asked about maintenance funding for the proposed public spaces, and Mr. Holliday testified SL Green would be responsible for day-to-day maintenance via the Grand Central Partnership, as well as putting up a $500,000 capital reserve for emergencies.  The Councilmember also noted the proposed text amendment would make the now-mandatory pedestrian circulation improvements that come with transferring landmark air rights waivable at City Planning’s discretion, and asked for the rationale behind the change.  Ms. Hsu-Chen testified the requirement was viewed as an unfair burden on the transaction.  “This requirement in the Grand Central Subdistrict is one of the reasons we [at City Planning] think why the Subdistrict’s special permit for transfer has not worked.  In its twenty years of existence, it’s only been used once,” though Ms. Hsu-Chen pointed out proposals would continue to be subject to the requirement without City Planning’s waiver.

Councilmember and Land Use Chair David Greenfield followed up on development rights transfers, raising a question that future developers would pit public improvements against the cost of transferring air rights.  Ms. Hsu-Chen testified future applicants could use the permits in combination with acquiring air rights from another site, and gave her belief future developers would still opt for acquiring air rights in a private transaction as the private deal is more straightforward than negotiating a public improvement package with the City.  Councilmember and Zoning Chair Mark Weprin asked in relation to a previous zoning text amendment approving fire-safe elevators for use in evacuating commercial buildings during an emergency, and Mr. Von Klemperer testified no such elevator would be in One Vanderbilt, opting instead for an extra stairwell.

City Council: Public Hearing LU 0197-2015, LU 0198-2015, LU 0199-2015, LU 0200-2015, LU 201-2015 (Apr. 13, 2015).

By:  Michael Twomey (Michael is the CityLaw Fellow and a New York Law School graduate, Class of 2014)

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