An artist's rendering of public realm improvements to Vanderbilt Avenue as part of the East Midtown Rezoning. Image from the Department of City Planning.
An artist’s rendering of public realm improvements to Vanderbilt Avenue as part of the East Midtown Rezoning. Image from the Department of City Planning.

The fate of Mayor Bloomberg’s ambitious plan to rezone a wide swath of Midtown remained uncertain Tuesday after a six-hour City Council hearing. Representatives of the mayor failed to convince the zoning committee to approve the controversial plan before the mayor leaves office in December.

The proposal would upzone a 73 blocks of East Midtown, from 39th Street to 57rd Street, between Second and Fifth avenues, allowing some developers to build up to 60 percent higher than the current zoning permits. The area is home to a number of New York’s architecturally important buildings including the Chrysler, Seagram and Graybar buildings.

Robert Steel, the deputy mayor for economic development, introduced the plan to the Council’s zoning subcommittee. The East Midtown rezoning is “the mayor’s holistic proposal to refresh and renew Midtown,” Mr. Steel told the Council, and is meant to “encourage the development of a handful of buildings in the next decade.”

Sixty-five percent of the class-A office space in the area is more than 50 years old, and features low ceilings and interior columns, which makes the area undesirable to today’s businesses.

A downzoning of the area in the 1980s led to a development freeze and the most recent construction was in 1999. Because of this downzoning, property owners in the area are stuck in the peculiar position of being unable to develop or renovate their properties because their buildings are already above what current zoning allows.

“In the past 20 years, the establishment of class-A office space in East Midtown has virtually come to a halt,” said Amanda Burden, chair of the Department of City Planning. “If we don’t act now, businesses will start looking elsewhere.”

But the rezoning has been divisive with community boards and some elected officials. These critics contend that the project will destroy the character of the neighborhood, will cost the city more than projected and is being rushed for approval under Mayor Bloomberg.

“It’s nowhere near good enough for the number one business address in the world,” said Terrence O’Neal, a member of Community Board 6 and an architect. “Not this plan, not this way, not according to this political calendar.”

The Councilmembers repeatedly questioned the details of the plan as proponents fumbled over answers and admitted that the details of an East Midtown Economic Corporation had not been worked out.

“We have not gotten to a place where we have sorted this whole thing out,” said Councilman Daniel Garodnick. “We need to have clarity for the Council and for the community as to what we’re dealing with here, far beyond the preliminary presentation that we’ve had today.”

Councilman Garodnick, a councilman whose district encompasses much of the area, has found himself in the crosshairs of the different groups hoping to win his vote. Traditionally, the full council sides with the local councilmember in land use votes. Mr. Garodnick is considered a candidate for Council Speaker, and his actions on this rezoning are his first big test under pressure.

The full council has to vote on the project by mid November.

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