A Modest Proposal For Easing Midtown West Congestion
By: Joel Epstein
It is sad when I miss something big. That is certainly the case with covid and the rise of remote work. Back in 2017 I wrote a glowing endorsement of SL Green and its One Vanderbilt office tower on East 42nd Street.
Writing in One Vanderbilt is Helping Fund the MTA, I crowed about how a very big but elegant new supertall was being built employing a quid pro quo deal that let SL Green build bigger in exchange for a $220 million payment to the MTA to help fund construction of Grand Central Madison.
While I am all for real estate developers paying their share for public infrastructure, in hindsight it was shortsighted of me to think that deals with real estate developers are the golden ticket to getting needed transit built in NYC.
Still, I didn’t get it all wrong back in 2017. For example, I hit the nail on the head when I wrote that “too many of those new buildings are supertalls, tricked out residential toothpicks that bring little to the City apart from longer shadows over Central Park and a third, fourth or fifth pied-à-terre to the world’s uber rich.”
I also still believe that One Vanderbilt can serve as a “model of how the MTA, New York and private developers can work together to bring critical transportation infrastructure to a city struggling to keep up with record rail and subway ridership.” It can, so long as the MTA, State and City make sure the deal pencils out for the public and isn´t just corporate welfare for the developer.
Back in 2017, the cause for a transit and suburban rail ridership boom was a strong regional economy and the public’s seemingly insatiable appetite for urban living à la New York. Today, that appetite for residential living in New York remains strong though hybrid work has replaced 9–5 in the office for workers and corporate management smart enough to recognize that no one likes to commute no matter how plush the seat on the subway, bus, train or in the car.
So maybe, rather than dragging workers back to the office to keep profits flowing to the REITs, banks and hedge funds that over-invested in commercial real estate, the City should give a supertall middle finger to the obsolete central business district work model and invest in hybrid work and adaptive reuse of as many office buildings as it can. A more pedestrian and bike friendly Midtown is already taking shape and that is an approach we can all get behind.
It is time we ditch the misguided pipedream of supertall office towers paying for the renovation of Penn Station. With every other metro news article about how the City is encouraging the conversion of office buildings to apartments, bear with me, while I tell a story that illustrates another way we can improve life in Midtown.
On Friday, though I would have rather been riding Amtrak to Baltimore and the DMV, I took the considerably more economical FlixBus from 31st Street and 8th Avenue.
From my seat near the driver I couldn’t help but shake my head as he wore out his horn begging taxis and Ubers to give him a minute to maneuver his rig into the congested westbound lane of traffic on 31st Street.
Meanwhile, real estate behemoth Vornado has evicted tenants and is warehousing many of the small buildings between Penn Station and Hudson Yards in the now ship-has-sailed illusion that these sites will be turned someday into supertall office towers for unlucky bridge and tunnel commuters.
FlixBus and other private bus companies for whom there is no room at the Port Authority Bus Terminal Inn are for the foreseeable future a part of the regional transportation puzzle. So wouldn’t it make sense for the City to use eminent domain to turn a quarter block of the nondescript Midtown West neighborhood into a no frills but functional bus terminal that doesn’t require bus drivers with nerves of steel and Grand Prix driving skills to navigate the streets to the Lincoln Tunnel?
Municipal governance can´t be a static process stuck in the old ways of doing things. Easing congestion in midtown can be achieved if we think creatively about more bus only infrastructure between the private bus depots that have emerged in recent years and the tunnel. Sure, it’s a modest idea for the City which faces big challenges. Still, let’s give it a try.
Yours in transit,
Joel Epstein is a New Yorker and an advocate for public transit, livable cities and public space.
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