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Policy Initiative Spotlight: NYC Zoning and Competitiveness

by Jonathan Masters
July 30, 2013

View of Midtown Manhattan from the Empire State Building, New York, NY (Courtesy Flickr). View of Midtown Manhattan from the Empire State Building, New York, NY (Courtesy Flickr).

The debate over skyscrapers and their place in the American city has endured for over a century, and New York City has often led the conversation. In 1913, the Equitable Life Assurance Society unveiled its controversial proposal to build a hulking new corporate headquarters in lower Manhattan after its former Wall Street home—the “city’s first skyscraper”—dramatically burned down. Completed just two years later, the new 1.4 million square foot, 40-story neo-classical colossus blocked the sun like few other man-made structures of its day.

Much of the local business community feared that the Equitable Building’s seven-acre shadow, and those of other rising downtown towers, like the 57-story Woolworth Building, would threaten the neighborhood commons and long-term real estate values if development was left unregulated. As a result, a coalition of industry leaders pushed through the 1916 Zoning Resolution, establishing the first government restrictions on building height and bulk. The landmark measure would set the stage for a new era of setback skyscrapers in the 1920s.

In 2013, commercial district zoning is once again back in the Manhattan spotlight. The outgoing Bloomberg administration has proposed a major rezoning of the East Midtown office district, a top business address and one of the city’s largest employment centers, fed by the Grand Central transportation hub. The mayor’s office contends that the district’s aging office building stock—on average the roughly 400 buildings are 73-years old—will undermine the city’s ability to compete with other global business centers for Fortune 500 companies.

Bloomberg says his plan, if approved by the City Council, would relax building restrictions on the 73-block space, in effect cultivating the investment needed to grow a denser, taller, more modern forest of office spires to rival those sprouting up in London, Paris, Shanghai, and other cities. The city fears that if existing zoning regulations are left in place, a trend of converting office space to residential and hotel space will continue and eventually “erode the [district’s] commercial core.” Unsurprisingly, the plan has the enthusiastic support of developers and real estate executives eying a profitable construction boom.

The ambitious rezoning of Hudson Yards on Manhattan’s far West Side—the last piece of underdeveloped real estate on the island—is oft cited as a relative city-planning success for the Bloomberg administration, despite the challenges of the recession. The mayor originally proposed the rezoning in order to develop the site for the 2012 Olympics bid, but the plan was later restructured. Since 2005, more than a dozen towers have been built, with many more on the way. In July 2013, it was announced that Time Warner may move its Midtown headquarters to a planned 80-story skyscraper in Hudson Yards.

The new proposal has also attracted a wealth of criticism. In an April op-ed for the New York Times, renowned architect Robert A. M. Stern faults the plan for not making the necessary transportation infrastructure improvements before the redevelopment, and argues that preserving rather than rezoning East Midtown is a better economic stimulant. “Our diversity, and the fact that we don’t look like Pudong [Shanghai], is the reason many creative types choose New York over the bland banalities of Silicon Valley, just as in London, they’ve chosen Clerkenwell over Canary Wharf, and in Paris, just about anywhere over La Défense,” Stern writes.

Another op-ed by NYT’s architecture critic Michael Kimmelman takes the Bloomberg plan to task for foolishly trying to win a race to the heavens with international rivals. “If New York wants to learn from London, Tokyo and Shanghai, the lessons aren’t about erecting new skyscrapers. Big cities making gains on New York are investing in rail stations, airports and high-speed trains, while New York rests on the laurels of Grand Central and suffers the 4, 5 and 6 trains, which serve East Midtown. They carry more passengers daily than the entire Washington Metro system,” he writes. (A 2nd Avenue subway line that will also service East Midtown is currently under construction, but has been plagued for decades by delays.)

At least for the moment, New York is still a global leader in the realm of tall buildings, second only to Hong Kong in the number of skyscrapers, according to Emporis. It also remains a premier place to live and do business, taking the top spot in a 2012 Price Waterhouse Coopers report on the social and economic performance of top global cities.

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