One Vanderbilt is Helping Fund the MTA

New York is in the midst of a building boom with little sign of a pause. And 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. One Vanderbilt is different. When completed in 2020, the 57-floor (1,401 foot) skyscraper being built by SL Green will be the fourth-tallest building in New York, until it isn’t. A civic-minded enterprise, the 1.7 million square-foot office building designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox rising from the Manhattan schist at 42nd Street and Vanderbilt Avenue is 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. The cause for this ridership growth is a strong regional economy and the public’s seemingly insatiable appetite for urban living à la New York.

One Vanderbilt aims high, hoping to join an esteemed club of exceptional architecture including three neighboring landmarks, the adjacent Grand Central Terminal and the nearby Chrysler and Chanin Buildings. And with that I leave the architectural criticism to the higher pay grade professionals and focus here on what the MTA/SL Green partnership is doing for New York commuters.

One Vanderbilt represents an important strategy for helping build transit infrastructure and public space in a challenging funding environment. With few signs that Washington or Albany plan to free up the billions the MTA needs to built out as well as properly maintain its existing equipment and infrastructure, it is approaches like this that must become a larger part of the funding puzzle. In all, SL Green is contributing $220 million toward the completion of the $10 billion East Side Access project which will bring a new Long Island Railroad terminal to East Midtown. One Vanderbilt isn’t the first partnership between the MTA and private developers and shouldn’t be the last. Earlier deals were cut making possible extension of the 7 train to Hudson Yards and income generating station naming rights at Barclays Center. But in my book, East Side Access represents a much bigger win for commuters than the earlier partnerships.

East Side Access is projected to move 7,000 to 8,000 people an hour through East Midtown and an estimated 25 percent of those commuters will pass through the $10 million 4,000 square foot transit hall SL Green is building at One Vanderbilt. Other notable public amenities being paid for by the developer include a pedestrian plaza that closes 42nd to 43rd Streets and Vanderbilt Avenue to vehicular traffic and, if we’re lucky, creates a shared street model for Vanderbilt that bans most vehicles north of 43th Street as well. Negotiations for the One Vanderbilt project began under former Mayor Mike Bloomberg and continued under the current mayor.

Once East Side Access is completed, 50 percent of Manhattan-bound Long Island Rail Road trains will run to the new terminal. So going forward, a commuter coming into the City from Long Island will be able to choose from a morning commute terminating in East Midtown or at Penn Station. Given the snail’s pace of construction on Moynihan Station, East Side Access and One Vanderbilt are moving forward expeditiously.

SL Green is also helping the MTA reconfigure the crowded platforms on the 4, 5 and 6 lines, adding staircases from the mezzanine to the platform and thinning some of the columns that currently block passengers from moving up and down the station platform. Removal and modification of the structural support for the Grand Hyatt Hotel which currently cuts in two the mezzanine level of the subway station will also improve way-finding and ease congestion at the station, the second busiest in the system. These improvements will make more of the lengthy platform for the 10 car trains accessible to commuters who tend to bunch up around the current staircases rather than all along the platform.

One Vanderbilt is a major employer, putting to work some 1,200 employees in one or another aspect of the monumental construction project. Which underscores the win win for union labor which could be doing so much more to underwrite further job creating MTA improvements. It has long been a mystery to me why transit workers and other union laborers don’t invest in themselves, using their considerable pension money to back public infrastructure building projects. If the New York City Pension Funds can invest millions to support affordable housing for veterans, then the TWU and other unions should also see the wisdom of investing in the MTA which pays their salaries.

Make no mistake, above the transit plaza and other pedestrian and MTA improvements, One Vanderbilt is not for the hoi polloi. It will be a first class office building with rents and amenities to match. But One Vanderbilt will also bring much needed public space to perennially congested East Midtown.

I have a soft spot in my transit heart for projects like One Vanderbilt and the far more modest addition of a portal into The Bloc from the rail station at 7th Street Metro Center in Los Angeles. For large and smaller transit systems alike these projects represent innovative solutions to funding and construction challenges. Take a bow, SL Green and the MTA. May this be one of the first of many such partnerships helping give the public the transit and public space amenities it deserves.

Yours in transit,

Joel

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