Facade Lift: Midtown Manhattan may get extreme makeover

People walk through Grand Central Terminal on the day before the famed Manhattan transit hub turned 100 years old on January 31, 2013 in New York City.

In three terms as mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg has put his stamp on the skyline by approving big projects. Now he's bent on an extreme makeover of one of Manhattan's most important -- but aging -- business districts

Crowds pour out of trains and head to work. Rows of businessmen in suits are getting their shoes shined. It's been like this for a century inside Grand Central station. Step out onto the street, though, and you step into a debate about how the heart of midtown should change.

At the corner of 42nd St. and Madison Ave., Mike Slattery, a vice president of the Real Estate Board of New York, points to a dumpy-looking brown brick building.   

"These are not the kind of buildings that are desirable today," he says. Then turning his gaze across the street, he continues, "this is one of the few buildings that have been built in the last 15 years in the district."

It's glass, and twice as tall as the older brick building. Slattery says it's environmentally efficient and the high ceilings and open floor space are what high end modern corporate tenants want. 

"It competes with Tokyo, Shanghai and London. That's what's at stake here: New York's preeminence as a commercial capital."

That's why Mayor Bloomberg wants to rezone Midtown East to allow for taller buildings and denser development. In all, the facelift would add five million square feet of office space. The city says it stands to gain $750 million towards subway improvements from selling development rights.

Slattery, whose group represents developers and other real estate professionals, says the project could generate $100 million a year in extra tax revenue.  Some skyscrapers would join New York's famous skyline, ans some buildings would leave it. 

Raju Mann, director of planning and policy at the Municipal Art Society of New York, points to one. It's the 1920's era Pershing Square building.

"It captures, in many ways, the architecture of a different era," he says. "These are the kinds of buildings that we feel create the character and the feel of a place like Midtown."

He worries Midtown East will be overrun by sterile corporate towers. He says the district should also include places for people to live and green space for them to play.

"The old idea of a place like Midtown from the 1950's and 60's was corporate office buildings. We think as a city we've moved beyond that mindset," Mann says.

Mixing residential space in with commercial building is "something we're learning about and thinking about as the process develops," says Bob Steel, deputy mayor for economic development.  "If we create the right place and right environment where businesses can succeed, then all kinds of new businesses will go there too."

Approving plans to remake Midtown East could take years. City Hall plans to release more details later this month.

About the author

Sabri Ben-Achour is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the New York City bureau. He covers Wall Street, finance, and anything New York and money related.

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