Thursday, June 21st, 2012

The Value of Transit: Rezoning Grand Central

I previously wrote about the value of transit in terms of direct benefits to motorists. This is marginal in most cities but in the biggest cities with extensive transit systems it is substantial. For example, just the financial benefits to commuters from congestion relief would be sufficient to fund Chicago’s entire regional transit system on an operating basis.

New York City is of course the paradigm of how improved transit drives enormous value. Naturally commuters benefit, but the real big dollars in New York are in real estate values (and potentially in the entire structure of the regional economy).

The connection between transit and real estate is something that New York leaders clearly get. The 7-train extension is being paid for from city funds. Though grossly overpriced, the city figured that it was more than worth borrowing money to build the extension in order to make big expanses of the west side of Manhattan more attractive to development. The payback on this would appear to be a no-brainer, barring some major economic reversal in the city.

We also see something similar at work in a plan to rezone the land around Grand Central Terminal to enable older 20-50 story office buildings (average age 68 years) to be demolished and replaced with modern towers as high as the Chrysler Building. This is a significant upzoning compared with the 1961 code.

This is not just being enabled by the existing transit infrastructure, but also new major investments coming online. Most notable is the East Side Access project, which will bring the LIRR into Grand Central. That project is projected to bring travel time savings of up to 45 minutes for a lot of commuters. It will also help to support the development of higher densities in the vicinity of the station. Likewise the Second Ave. Subway will benefit pretty much the entire East Side of Manhattan by bringing badly needed congestion relief and the ability to carry more passengers on that side of town. (The existing Lexington 4/5/6 trains carry more people than the entire Chicago CTA rail system).

Given Bloomerberg’s lame duck status and New York’s famously challenging politics, the rezoning may not happen. But it’s a perfect example of how a city can go about capturing the value transit can bring, in terms of economic activity if not actual money for transit.

5 Comments
Topics: Public Policy, Transportation
Cities: New York

5 Responses to “The Value of Transit: Rezoning Grand Central”

  1. Having worked at the old MTA headquarters above Grand Central (347 Madison Avenue), the flipside of the upzoning plan is that this area is already very, very dense, and at times with unbearably crowded sidewalks from commuters hurrying to and from the already existing towers and rail lines. The only way to go higher would be to build the area into the amazingly densified Time Square area. I worked in Times Square, too. Streets are often entirely gridlocked with pedestrians, turning what should be five-minute trips from the subway to work, or the office to lunch, etc., into 15-minute shuffles. Even in New York, there are–or should be–limits. Not every world city needs to be as crowded as the Central district of Hong Kong.

    It’s also worth noting that East Side Access isn’t really adding additional workers to the GCT area, it’s really aimed at giving east Midtown workers who currently take the Long Island Rail Road to Penn Station in west Midtown and walk back towards their east Midtown jobs an easier way to get to work. So in that respect, GCT might become more crowded, but the actual number of workers shouldn’t rise by much.

    In fact, it really can’t because LIRR East Side Access isn’t engineered/service-planned to carry new riders to GCT since space in the East River tunnels is extraordinarily limited during rush hour. The service will probably be swamped with existing riders from the beginning. These limitations were criticisms aimed at the project by the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA in the late 1990s (when I served as associate director there) when the project was just getting off the ground. Despite the criticism, nothing changed but the cost and the time frame. Both got bigger.

  2. David A says:

    The fundamental problem with planning is when we latch on to orthodoxies and forget context. The area around Grand Central is the densest part of NYC, therefore North America. Sometimes more density creates problems instead of solving them. Is there capacity om the 4,5, 6 lines to absorb more people: no. Are there any meaningful open space amenities within a 10 minute walk: not really. What are the historic preservation implications? Urban design implications? Might we cannabalize other public investments in Hudson Yards or Lower Manhattan?

    Of course, transit development and TOD are essential urban approaches (no news there for anyone who has ever read anything related to planning) but when we start turning this stuff into dogma we fail to learn any of the critical lessons of profession. Context matters, history matters, digging deeply and looking carefully matter.

  3. Mike, long time, no hear. Hope everything is great and thanks for sharing your perspectives from your time in NYC transit advocacy.

  4. Alon Levy says:

    Heading into Manhattan, the 7 is one of the most under-capacity subway lines. (Its peak crowding is east of Roosevelt, or perhaps east of QBP.) The 4/5/6 are currently getting relief from SAS. Metro-North is very crowded, but they’re already investigating adding Penn Station service once ESA opens, taking some crowds off the 6, and also making more room at Grand Central to add local Harlem Line trains (and integrate the goddamned fares!) to further relieve the 4/5.

  5. Danny Handelman says:

    Intensification doesn’t happen because of improved public transit; it happens when zoning permits a larger building than currently on the site and demand for housing in the area is greater than supply.

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