New York Lays Groundwork to Reshape Skyline

As Michael Bloomberg nears the end of his 12-year tenure as mayor of New York, one of his legacies is shaping up to be the city’s skyline.

When he took office in 2002, Mr. Bloomberg embarked on an ambitious economic development agenda that included providing housing for tens of thousands of new residents, converting more of the waterfront to recreational use and ensuring employers had enough modern office space.

Noah Rabinowitz for The Wall Street Journal

Ferry riders take in the east side of midtown Manhattan, which could be reshaped under a Bloomberg administration proposal that would give developers greater freedom to build new skyscrapers in the district.

His main tool in doing this: changing the zoning in neighborhoods where development had been held back.

The policy continued this week, when the Bloomberg administration unveiled a plan to reshape the east side of midtown Manhattan by spurring development of new office towers in the area around Grand Central Terminal, a major train station. The proposal, which requires approval by the City Council, gives developers far greater ability to replace aging prewar offices with modern skyscrapers.

While it would take years—even decades—for the vista of eastern Midtown to dramatically change, some of Mr. Bloomberg’s rezonings already have produced results. High-rise towers now sit on the formerly industrial Brooklyn waterfront in the Williamsburg neighborhood, and hotels and luxury apartment buildings are gradually starting to fill in the far west side of midtown Manhattan, once strewn with parking lots and warehouses.

Similar efforts in downtown Brooklyn and the area around the High Line park—built on disused rail tracks in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood—have also caused towers to sprout.

« We had to figure out not only how to grow, but where to grow, » says Amanda Burden, director of the Department of City Planning since the start of the mayor’s term.

The rezoning effort has been fueled by a growing population and booming tourism. While New York’s economy was wounded by the economic downturn and is still being held back by contraction in financial services, it fared better than many other regions over the past decade. The city added 236,622 residents between 2000 and 2011 for a record high of 8.2 million, according to a U.S. Census Bureau estimate.

To encourage development, Mr. Bloomberg began rezoning early in his first term. Ms. Burden said her agency has overseen rezoning for 37% of the city since 2002 through a combination of allowing new development in districts targeted for growth and adding restrictions in many residential areas.

To be sure, the skyline has undergone more dramatic changes under other mayors, although zoning changes often didn’t spark the shifts. Between the 1960s and 1990s, vast portions of midtown and downtown Manhattan were rebuilt as the office sector grew. In recent years, the biggest change has been at the World Trade Center site in Manhattan, where two new towers are scheduled to open by 2014.

Zoning is a more subtle tool than some measures used by other mayors, such as condemning and rebuilding swaths of the city. Simply changing the rules doesn’t mean buildings will rise.

Indeed, some areas the Bloomberg administration has rezoned—such as 125th Street in Manhattan’s Harlem neighborhood or Coney Island in Brooklyn—have seen little, if any, construction. While the downturn is likely partly to blame, some planning experts question whether the market would support large-scale development in these areas.

But in other parts of Manhattan, results have been swifter. On the far West Side, the city says more than 5,800 units of housing have been built since it was rezoned in 2005. Developers are now trying to start office skyscrapers that could top 900 feet.

« I think the legacy of these rezoning efforts is enormous in terms of the next several decades of the city’s ability to grow and modernize, » says Kathryn Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City, a nonprofit organization backed by some of the city’s largest businesses.

But the actions have also provoked criticism that the city has been slow to deliver on promises. Along the Brooklyn waterfront, some plans for parkland pledged in 2005 are stalled amid rising costs.

« You get a little skeptical after a while, » said Councilman Stephen Levin, who represents the rezoned Williamsburg area.

—Michael Howard Saul contributed to this article.

Write to Eliot Brown at


Wall Street Journal


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