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The following article about the City Club appeared in the NY Times following an article the same week presenting the position of the City Club on the City’s proposal for new zoning in East Midtown.

A Goad to the Powerful, Lately Dormant, Is Stirred by a Midtown Zoning Plan

Published: August 28, 2013

The City Club of New York has sharply criticized Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s rezoning plan for East Midtown. But in the newsroom, that’s called “burying the lead.”

Michael S. Gruen, the new president of the City Club of New York, a group founded in 1892 that recently all but disappeared.
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Who knew?

Founded in 1892, the City Club was once in the forefront of civic advocacy, fighting Tammany Hall in one era, Robert Moses in the next. It was such a powerful good-government group — “goo-goos,” their opponents called them — that it could build its own club house at 55 West 44th Street, a building it later sold and is now the City Club Hotel.

The club benefited from high-profile leaders like I. D. Robbins, who built single-family homes in some of the most desperate neighborhoods of Brooklyn, and Sally Goodgold, a charismatic Upper West Side gadfly who knew zoning laws better than most lawyers.

Its voice was amplified by newspapers, especially this one, which treated its reports and recommendations seriously. Even the club’s refusal to bestow awards for design excellence in the early 1980s was regarded as newsworthy.

In the last decade, however, the club all but disappeared from view.

The Bloomberg administration has often shown little tolerance of criticism and little patience for commentary from dissenters. “It has been a monarchy, with nothing but a court,” said Stuart Pertz, 77, an architect who served on the City Planning Commission in the 1980s and is the secretary of the reconstituted City Club.

He said that some of the organizations that would have pushed back in the past were hamstrung by their reliance on deep-pocketed donors: executives who would not look kindly on having their own projects attacked by the groups they were financing.

The City Club suspended activities in 2003. “It ran through its funding,” said Michael S. Gruen, 71, a lawyer who has often represented the Municipal Art Society. In June, he assumed the presidency of the City Club.

The new chairman of the club is Ross Sandler, 74, a transportation commissioner under Mayor Edward I. Koch and a former club president.

“The club more or less stopped functioning in a civic way, and there were few members,” Mr. Sandler said. “But it never dissolved. It never gave up either its corporate charter or its tax-exempt status.” He furnished an interim haven for the rootless organization at the Center for New York City Law, of which he is the founding director.

The East Midtown rezoning plan galvanized what had been a somewhat inchoate dissent movement among architects, planners and land-use lawyers. And the City Club offered an existing framework on which to build a new organization.

“In a way, we were lucky,” Mr. Pertz said. “East Midtown seems to be uniquely egregious.”

The proposal, which is to reach the City Council in October, would allow the construction of towers around Grand Central Terminal that, in exceptional cases, could have 30 times as much floor area as their lot sizes. (This is known as floor-area ratio, or F.A.R.) The idea is to ensure that the district keeps its commercial competitiveness.

To achieve such density, twice as much as zoning currently allows, a developer would have to convince the City Planning Commission of the tower’s superior design quality and pay tens of millions of dollars into a city fund for transit and pedestrian improvements in the area.

“If someone said, when I was on the planning commission, that they wanted 30 F.A.R., we wouldn’t have rolled our eyes,” Mr. Pertz said. “We’d have said, ‘Did you make a mistake with the zero?’ It wouldn’t have made sense to us.”

Two days before, the following article appeared in the NY Times describing the position taken by the City Club of New York, in response to the City’s proposed zoning for East Midtown.


Bloomberg’s Plan for Bigger East Midtown Towers Is ‘Zoning for Dollars,’ Group Says

Published: August 27, 2013

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s plan to encourage construction of large new office towers around Grand Central Terminal as a way of keeping East Midtown commercially competitive amounts to an illegal game of “zoning for dollars,” the City Club of New York has asserted.

Under the plan, developers seeking to build towers larger than zoning rules ordinarily allow would pay $250 for every extra square foot. This money would go into a fund that would finance pedestrian and transit improvements in East Midtown, and the mayor has said it could reach $500 million.

The City Club likened this mechanism to extortion, and said it would not survive judicial scrutiny.

In response, a spokesman for the City Planning Department said the plan was consistent with incentives that have been offered to developers since 1961, yielding benefits like plazas, subway station improvements, affordable housing, rehabilitation of theaters and improvements to the High Line.

The East Midtown rezoning plan is making its way through official review amid an unusual amount of criticism. The proposal is expected to reach the City Council in October. Until now, much of the debate has focused on whether $250 a square foot is too high a cost for developers to bear, or too low to finance needed projects.

The City Club, a venerable but long somnolent good-government advocacy group, has taken a different tack. Reintroducing itself as an organization with new leadership and focus, the club issued a 24-page critique of East Midtown rezoning this month. Michael S. Gruen, a land-use lawyer who has often represented the Municipal Art Society, is the interim president of the newly revived club.

The club’s critique said the key issue is not the dollar amount of the fee but the fact that the city is creating a system in which developers would pay cash to enlarge their buildings.

Zoning rules in East Midtown generally limit the floor area of new buildings on the avenues to 15 times the lot size. Under the Bloomberg administration plan, the developer of a qualifying lot could “earn” as much as a 24-to-1 floor-area ratio by paying millions of dollars into the improvement fund. At certain sites, a developer could be granted a ratio of 30-to-1 by persuading the City Planning Commission that the proposed tower was of “superior” design, and by paying additional millions.

The City Club said that if the city allowed greater floor-area ratios but told developers they could build to those levels only after paying to use air rights they already owned, the rule would cross into the realm of extortion.

The club’s critique said that courts required there to be a close connection between the measures required of a developer — widening a sidewalk, for instance, or renovating a subway station — and the burdens created by the developer’s project.

The club also said the plan was on shaky legal ground in part because the $250-a-square-foot figure was not derived from the financing of needed improvements, but from the value of commercial development rights in the area. “The price formula alone makes the scheme look, smell and feel like zoning for dollars,” the report said.

Michael Shilstone, a spokesman for the City Planning Department, took exception to the premise of the club’s critique. He said contributions to the fund would be “paid voluntarily by property owners” and “used solely to fund transit and pedestrian public-realm improvements within the rezoning area as part of a smart, integrated land-use plan.

“Contrary to the City Club argument,” he said, “there is no requirement that the amount of these voluntary payments by owners and developers be calculated based on the ‘impacts’ caused by the development.”