Community-led zoning framework for North Chelsea/Penn Area.
At the regularly scheduled monthly Community Board Five meeting on Thursday, October 13, 2022, the following resolution passed with a vote of 30 in favor; 0 opposed; 1 abstaining; 1 present not entitled to vote:
WHEREAS, The area around Penn Station is home to the largest transit hub in the western hemisphere and the second busiest train station in the world while also being the present home to a world-renowned sports and concert arena; and
WHEREAS, Infused by a very rich transit network of train, subway and bus infrastructure, the Penn Station area has been in dire need of a vehicle to create and enact a comprehensive plan to accommodate a variety of transit-related uses, infrastructure upgrades, land use, zoning and public improvements in this area that will be cohesive with the existing and historical urban fabric; therefore be it
RESOLVED, That Community Board Five supports and adopts the following letter “A ZONING FRAMEWORK FOR A COHESIVE FUTURE IN NORTH CHELSEA AND PENN STATION AREA:
North Chelsea and Penn Area Community Planning
MANHATTAN COMMUNITY BOARD FIVE, LAND USE, HOUSING & ZONING COMMITTEE
Pennsylvania Station, designed by McKim Mead & White, was constructed by the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) between 1902 and 1910. It was located on an eight-acre plot bounded by Seventh Avenue, Eighth Avenue, West 31st Street, and West 33rd Street.
Pennsylvania Station was designed in the Parisian Beaux-Arts style and would become iconic for its open spaces, Doric columns, and expansive sky lighting. The main waiting room, inspired by the Roman Baths of Caracalla, was the largest indoor space in New York City. A block and a half long, it had vaulted glass windows that soared 150 feet over a sun-filled chamber.
The Farley Building, constructed between 1910 and 1913, was built as a companion to Pennsylvania Station. Also designed by McKim, Mead, and White, it afforded direct access to Pennsylvania Station’s tracks for postal operations. Other buildings that were constructed contemporaneously include the Hotel Pennsylvania, Gimbel’s Department Store (which today is the Manhattan Mall), and 11 Penn Plaza.
In 1902, the R. H. Macy and Company Store flagship moved uptown to Herald Square at 34th Street and Broadway, where its headquarters are currently located.
In 1962, after intercity and commuter rail decline, the original Pennsylvania Station was demolished, despite intense protests.
Around the time the original Pennsylvania Station was demolished, its below-grade concourses and waiting areas were subsequently reconfigured to become the existing Penn Station, which opened in 1968. Above ground, the landmark train station was replaced by MSG and 2 Penn Plaza, both of which opened in 1968.
MSG was constructed pursuant to a special permit, a discretionary land use action that modifies use, bulk, or parking controls. The special permit also included site plan approval, which limited future modifications without additional City review. Approved in 1963, the special permit for MSG established a maximum capacity of 22,000 seats for the arena and included a term limit of 50 years. The special permit also established a series of plazas that, under the 1961 Zoning Resolution, generated bonus floor area.
In 2013, a new special permit to facilitate continued operation of MSG was issued for a period of 10 years, with a provision that a new location and subsequent move would be facilitated. In a letter to the NY City Council, dated July 9, 2013, Amanda Burden, Chair of NYCPC, stated “The Commission, like the Council, believes that the preferred result would be for MSG to relocate to another site. Relocating the MSG Arena would allow for a fresh start on the Penn Station Site that would permit substantial improvements to be made below grade at the track and concourse levels, provide generous means of access and egress from the ground level to the station below, and could also include a ‘head house’ structure to serve as a train hall in a manner befitting the busiest train station in the country.”
The current special permit will expire in July 2023.
Over decades, MSG relocation has been considered numerous times. In 2006, a memorandum of understanding was signed between MSG and ESD to facilitate the arena relocation to the Farley post Office. Yet, all past efforts have failed to facilitate MSG’s relocation.
In 1982, the Special Midtown District (MiD) was established. The purpose of the Special Midtown District is to guide development within the Midtown central business district.
In 2010, a rezoning and special permit were approved within the Special Midtown District to redevelop the site of the Hotel Pennsylvania with a new commercial office building, known as 15 Penn Plaza. The rezoning extended the C6-6 district (15.0 FAR) over the entirety of Block 808. It also allowed for a floor area bonus in exchange for subway station and rail mass transit facility improvements, among other actions. To date, the proposed project has not been built. The special permit issued in 2010 has expired.
In 2015, Macy’s expressed interest in pursuing an up-zoning for their current headquarters located at Herald Square & 7th Avenue. Such floor area bonus would have been sought in exchange for public realm, subway station and rail mass transit facility improvements.
In 2020, ESD (Empire State Development Corporation) issued a General Project Plan to acquire sites around Penn Station and up-zone them up to 33 FAR. The controversial plan was opposed by the entire elected delegation, the City Planning Commission, community boards, civic organizations, residents’ groups, block associations and scholars alike. The plan framework was approved by ESD directors in July 2022. Underlying design guidelines, density and zoning will only become effective once ESD takes possession of the specific sites’ ownership and the related transactions are approved by the PACB (Public Authorities Control Board). To this day, no such transaction has been completed.
Today, as in 1963, the area primarily consists of C6 and M1 zoning districts. Permitted commercial densities have increased across much of the area over the last five decades. The area’s FAR range from 4 to 15 reaching up to 23 with special permit.
While the Special Hudson Yards District, the Special Midtown District and the Penn Area Civic Land Use GPP overlap, the area as a whole lacks a cohesive zoning framework that reflects its location in the transit-rich Penn Station area. Rather, the current zoning regulations that govern development within the study area are the result of piecemeal public and private proposals driven by strong private interests, and city and state administrations often at odds with public interest goals, that have failed to articulate a comprehensive vision for a cohesive future at this location.
A Zoning Framework for a Cohesive Future in North Chelsea and Penn Station Area.
The area around Penn Station is a critical neuralgic area for New York City and the North East Corridor.
The area is home to the largest transit hub in the western hemisphere and the second busiest train station in the world. It is also home to a world-renowned sports and concert arena. Catty-corner is the largest department store in the country. It is infused by a very rich transit network of train, subway and bus infrastructure.
The area is culturally rich, with a large presence of music recording and rehearsal studios. Historic resources are numerous and include the Church of St John the Baptist, the Gimbel’s Skybridge, and Macy’s, to name a few.
The North East Corridor represents 30% of America’s GDP and its state of good repair is the most urgent project in America. It is a local, regional and national asset.
As critical as the area is, its infrastructure has been neglected for decades and lacks a cohesive and comprehensive vision serving the public interest.
Over the past two decades, Manhattan Community Board Five has advocated for improved zoning and land use policies to improve infrastructure, facilitate fiscally responsible investments and support sensible development.
Manhattan Community Board Five is proposing to establishing a vehicle to create and enact a comprehensive Community Plan to accommodate a variety of transit-related uses, infrastructure upgrades, land use, zoning and public improvements in this area that will be cohesive with the existing urban fabric.
The general area for the proposed plan is bounded by 8th Avenue to the West, 6th Avenue to the East, 35th Street to the North and 30th Street to the South but the exact boundaries will be finalized as research is undertaken and input is provided.
The Community Plan may propose to recommend a 197-a plan, a 197-c (as defined in NYC Charter), the creation of a special zoning district, the creation of special sub-districts, a zoning framework, or other vehicles that shall successfully and permanently improve the district needs and serve the public interest.
The community plan will be carefully formulated by a working group appointed by Community Board Five Chair. The working group will be made up of community board members, local residents and businesses, stakeholders, civic groups and experts. The final plan will be subject to approval by Community Board Five.
In 2019, Marc J. Dunkelman, a fellow at the Taubman Center for American Politics and Policy at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, wrote in Politico: “Since the mid-1960s—really since the opening of the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge connecting Brooklyn to Staten Island—no major new piece of public infrastructure has been built within the five boroughs of New York City. New York has managed to rebuild when bridges and subways failed and, in the case of the World Trade Center, when buildings were destroyed by terrorists. A handful of new subway stops have opened on Second Avenue, and the 7 Line was extended into Manhattan’s Far West Side. Gov. Andrew Cuomo managed to replace the Tappan Zee Bridge. And he’s rebuilding terminals at Kennedy and LaGuardia airports. But those changes are a pittance of what New York once built year upon year, and just a fraction of the public infrastructure a booming city demands.”
It is incumbent on us to tackle with gusto the imperatives of our time. Federal funding for infrastructure has never been so generous. The onus is on us to jumpstart an ambitious plan to upgrade our area, for our community but also for the entire region. Our need for improved public transit is an existential necessity. Creating new connectivity is a necessity to remain competitive with other economic powerhouses such as London (Elizabeth Line) and China. Such plans must be designed to complement and support our existing urban fabric and neighborhood character.
The plan’s stated goals are to:
CB5 believes that it is governments’ responsibility to build and fund infrastructure and plan for our district’s zoning and land use needs, with public interest at heart. CB5 believes that although this area is of critical importance for the region and for the nation, the local community is best suited to spearhead and design a plan to address the multiple needs, and work with all stakeholders. CB5 will undertake the effort to create a resilient, ambitious, pragmatic and comprehensive plan to address the transportation, infrastructure, zoning, socioeconomic, fiscal and urban design needs of an area that has proven vexingly difficult to fix.