Mayor Eric Adams wants to turn Midtown’s struggling business district into a “real working community” by turning thousands of empty offices into new apartments.
During his State of the City address on Thursday, Adams announced plans to lift a housing ban in a Midtown neighborhood between West 23rd and 41st Streets.
Transforming Midtown “means creating housing in areas that currently only allow manufacturing and office uses while protecting good jobs at the center of our city’s economy,” Adams said in prepared remarks.
Housing development in Manhattan trailed every other borough except Staten Island, with Manhattan accounting for just 13% of new housing permits filed citywide in 2021, according to the Planning Department.
The proposal builds on recently released recommendations from an office conversion task force, which said the city could unlock up to 20,000 new apartments by allowing landlords to convert office buildings built before 1991 in residential accommodation.
Housing experts and local officials have compared the plan to the redevelopment of the Financial District over the past two decades. The neighborhood’s population, which closed when the closing bell rang on Wall Street, has roughly doubled since 2001 as developers turned offices into homes. These changes were accelerated by zoning changes and tax breaks.
“It’s the most recent and relevant comparison,” said council member Keith Powers, who represents part of Midtown. “This is an area in a very dense, transit-rich part of Manhattan that may have survived its historic use. That doesn’t mean you have to throw away all of our stuff, but it does mean that you can provide opportunities to do more there.
The plan comes as Adams has pushed city workers and private employers back to their offices to spur a stronger pandemic recovery in Manhattan’s traditional business districts, which have lagged amid work at distance boosted by COVID. The city needed to look to another solution to revive the area while creating badly needed housing, said Andrew Fine, policy director of the pro-development group Open New York and a former senior housing agency official. from the city.
“It’s the right place to stay because it’s in a part of Manhattan that has had the highest vacancy rates in the city in the post-pandemic world,” Fine said. “He was really affected by the lack of commuters five days a week.”
The city has yet to release specific boundaries for the conversion plan, but a map in the task force report highlights sections of Midtown where housing is prohibited.
Fine said rezoning in the area could open up a “high-opportunity” section of New York City linked to a network of subways and commuter lines to low- and middle-income residents. Any new apartment complexes in rezoned areas must adhere to the city’s “mandatory inclusive housing” rules, which require a minimum number of limited-income housing units.
The office conversions would also take place right next to a major office development around Penn Station. But land-use lawyer Mitch Korbey, of Herrick Feinstein, said the two proposals complement each other: Companies are shunning old offices and manufacturing spaces in favor of newer buildings or remote working, leaving the blocks north of Madison Square Park “an area frozen in time.”
“It allows for new development, new housing and breathes life into a neighborhood that really benefits the city,” Korbey said.
The proposal could face opposition from tenant groups and neighborhoods concerned about luxury development that excludes low-income residents and allows unrestricted conversions.
John Fisher, an activist tenant who lives on West 45th Street, said he wanted to see more details about the proposal.
“Residential conversions depend on a lot of things, like what (affordability) is based on,” he said. “If it’s just luxury housing, developers are going to have a blast.”
In his speech, Adams also referenced a plan to rezon the North Shore of Staten Island and hinted at a plan to better address sources of income discrimination by landlords — a pervasive issue that plagues efforts to house the homeless and low-income New Yorkers with rent subsidies.
“If you tell a potential tenant that you don’t accept Section 8 vouchers or any other rental assistance, guess what?” said Adams. “This tenant could be an actor hired by the city, and we will take enforcement action against you.”