Helpern Architects


Is the new East Midtown a place you’d want to be? Bennet Dunkley sees opportunities in the proposed rezoning.

Good news for NYC: Hudson Yards, Lower Manhattan, Downtown Brooklyn, and Long Island City are all shaping up as desirable new locations for business. Could there be a problem with that? Only one big one: Their vitality makes the older heart of the city – in particular, most of the office buildings and hotels around Grand Central Terminal – less competitive, viable, or exciting.

Ever since the late days of the Bloomberg Administration, the real estate industry has been asking whether East Midtown Rezoning is going to happen. What kinds of opportunities are there, especially for new players, in the district? What would be the effect on landmarks, transit, and other infrastructure?

Questions about New York City's Greater East Midtown Rezoning proposal were thrown at Bennet Dunkley, Helpern Architects' vice president/principal, the only architect invited to speak on a panel at the November 2016 "East/West Real Estate Connect" meeting of the Manhattan chapter of the Asian Real Estate Association of America. AREAA is called the “largest Asian organization in North America.”

"We like to do break-through projects,” Bennet told the audience. “We foresee really big changes ahead for East Midtown’s many older buildings, no less for the area's 26 landmarked properties. We've been working in this district since the 1980s, when David Helpern designed Leonard Stern’s 667 Madison Avenue – still one of the city’s leading commercial buildings with prime retail and office spaces. 667 basically opened up the north end of the CBD with new thinking about how a building “meets” the street to the benefit of owners, pedestrians, and shoppers. Our renovation and expansion of a pre-war hotel on Lexington Avenue and 49th Street into trend-setting W's Manhattan flagship also shifted offerings – in that case, for the stretch north of Grand Central Station.”

Here are some of the questions Bennet was asked and his answers:

How will new buildings look different? The higher FAR (floor area ratio) will yield taller, thinner buildings with higher floor-to-floor dimensions. Commercial property owners will not just respond to the requirement to maintain landmarks and improve transit; they will also provide green spaces, both at the street level and above, and include "lifestyle spaces" akin to those offered by hotel and residential developers.

More ground-level transparency will contribute not just to a more active street but also to a sense of security. Hopefully, there’ll be more variety to the retail – and perhaps more reasonable rents to accomplish this.

What will be different for existing buildings? Most obvious will be new interior finishes and possibly new exterior materials, both to look more contemporary and also to be more energy-efficient. To reposition existing buildings, there may be structural work as well; for instance, FAR shuffled around the buildings’ existing bones – perhaps adding floors but certainly bringing in more light and air.

“Our reading of the new zoning proposal indicates that overbuilt buildings – where the size of older, existing structures exceeds what current zoning allows – will not have to reduce their size,” Bennet advised. “But once rebuilt (or demolished and built new), they will have to reposition themselves just like their neighbors, making them shine among New York City’s competitive offerings.”

What will also change about Landmarks, Board of Standards & Appeals, and other special permitting requirements? Quite a bit. Owners of individual landmarks will have more air rights to transfer to any development site within a proposed East Midtown Subdistrict, and a percentage of that transaction will go towards a district-wide Public Realm Improvement Fund. If anything, you will need to check and double-check your status, because the zoning will be new to everyone.

No matter any competitive pressures from other parts of the city, the proposed East Midtown zoning change started from the need for more Class A commercial space in midtown. Now community stakeholders have demanded that increased floor area be conditioned on safeguarding landmarks and upgrading transit. To those demands, we foresee adding water management, sewage, open space, and other neighborhood amenities ... the list keeps growing.

Why should I work with an architect first? A great question! Architects make sense of the zoning resolution, show you with drawings and plain language what your site can yield and what options are available from zoning, permitted uses, height and setback regulations, yard and parking requirements (if any). Architects active in the city will also be aware of community issues. No matter the building size, the process is the process. Start with an architect, and then together ask your land-use attorney the questions that the architect will raise.

Others on the AREAA panel with Bennet were David Dishy, president of the Development/Acquisition Division and partner at L+M Development Partners; Mitch Korbey, land use & zoning chair and partner at Herricks Feinstein; Robin A. Kramer, land-use chair and partner at Duval Stachenfeld; and William Silverman, managing director and group head of investment sales at Hodges Ward Elliott. Anthony Chiellino, president of Prestige Title Agency, was the moderator.

"AREAA assembled a very knowledgeable panel," Bennet reports. "Some of my colleagues called themselves 'zoning geeks' – which opened the door for me to show how architects will use the proposed new zoning to propel creative, beneficial development."

Helpern Architects is currently tee-ing up a couple of midtown air rights-driven projects. If you have questions about how to scope out midtown zoning parameters for a site you have in mind, don’t hesitate to ask Bennet.