Last week, it was announced that before leaving office next year New York’s Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, would be putting a final architectural stamp on the city he has governed since 2002.
Put forward to the City Council, Bloomberg and his planning department have proposed an overhaul of one of the most iconic neighbourhoods in Manhattan. The Mayor wants the 70 blocks around Grand Central Station, currently restricted by old planning laws, to be rezoned to allow for soaring modern skyscrapers to be built. If accepted, the law would permit the demolition of certain smaller existing buildings for new structures of nearly double their height.
The area now being referred to as Midtown East is not only home to Grand Central Station but also to the Chrysler Building, St Patrick’s Cathedral, the Waldorf Astoria and the Lever House — all paragons of Manhattan’s famous skyline and streetscape. Unsurprisingly, Bloomberg’s proposal has been met with considerable uproar. While landmarked buildings like these cannot be touched, if new skyscrapers are permitted, they will inevitably dwarf their famous predecessors.
Known more for popular proposals like bringing numerous parks and playgrounds to the city, reclaiming Roosevelt Island as a future tech hub and opening up access to miles of shoreline, the Bloomberg administration’s plan to reshape the heart of Manhattan has surprised many.
The Mayor’s reasoning for the proposal is to keep midtown Manhattan competitive. He argues that businesses are more likely to seek high-tech rather than historic office space and that if Midtown East doesn’t modernise, it will lose out.
While state-of-the-art, efficient offices clearly have a lot to offer, it seems that the Mayor’s proposal goes down a path that many cities in the US are currently trying to turn back on. After decades of ripping down the old and replacing it with the new, cities across the country are now seeing the economic benefits of preserving their downtown. And although New York’s urban plan is unlike any other, there are ways to breathe new life into Midtown Manhattan’s office spaces without building a whole new business district.
Rather than encourage developers to transform Midtown East into an area more akin to Hong Kong or Dubai, why not work with the established vernacular and hire a local architect such as Morris Adjmi, who has created modern spaces in restored buildings across the city. And, before worrying about whether or not the offices will be modern enough to attract international businesses, perhaps the Mayor should address how these companies will get their employees to midtown in the first place. With no express trains into Manhattan from any of its surrounding airports, slow national rail connections and a grubby public transport system, New York has a few other things to spruce up before it can become a hive of modern offices.
Having done so much to improve the urban fabric of New York, it would be a shame if this became the last major planning policy of the Bloomberg administration. Just across town lies the unnavigable Penn Station, which has been a topic of debate since the original structure was razed and rebuilt in the 1960s. Mayor Bloomberg and his office have been involved with many proposals to correct the planning errors made at Penn Station 50 years ago. Let’s hope that his successor in 50 years’ time won’t be doing the same with Midtown East.