Mayor Eric Adams wants to transform Midtown’s ailing business district into a “true live-work 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 ban on housing in a chunk of Midtown 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 in the center of our city’s economy,” Adams said in prepared remarks.
Housing development in Manhattan has trailed every other borough but Staten Island, with Manhattan accounting for just 13% of new housing permits filed citywide in 2021, according to the Department of City Planning.
The proposal builds on recently released recommendations from an office conversion task force, which said that the city could unlock up to 20,000 new apartments by allowing landlords to convert office buildings constructed before 1991 to residential housing.
Housing experts and local officials likened the plan to redevelopment of the Financial District over the past two decades. The population of the district, which used to shut down when the closing bell rang on Wall Street, has roughly doubled since 2001 as developers turned offices into homes. Those changes were hastened by zoning changes and tax breaks.
“That’s the most recent and relevant comparison,” said Councilmember Keith Powers, who represents part of Midtown. “It’s looking at an area in a very dense, transit-rich part of Manhattan that may have outlasted its historic use. It doesn’t mean you have to throw all our things away, but it means you can offer opportunities to do more there.”
The plan comes as Adams has pushed city workers and private employers to return to offices to spur a stronger pandemic recovery in traditional Manhattan business districts, which has lagged amid COVID-spurred remote work. The city needed to pivot to another solution to revive the region while creating sorely needed housing, said Andrew Fine, policy director at the pro-development group Open New York and a former top official at the city’s housing agency.
“It’s the right place for housing because it’s in a part of Manhattan that has had the highest retail vacancies in the city in the post-pandemic world,” Fine said. “It’s been really hurt by the lack of five-day-a-week commuters.”
The city has yet to release specific boundaries for the conversion plan, but a map in the task force’s report highlights sections of Midtown where housing is barred.
Fine said a rezoning in the area could open 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 inclusionary housing” rules, which require a minimum number of income-restricted housing units.
The office conversions would also take place right next to a major office development project surrounding Penn Station. But land use attorney Mitch Korbey, from the firm Herrick Feinstein, said the two proposals complement one another: Businesses are fleeing the old offices and manufacturing space in favor of newer buildings or remote work, leaving the blocks north of Madison Square Park “an area frozen in time.”
“It’s allowing new development, new housing and breathing life into an area that really benefits the city,” Korbey said.
The proposal could face opposition from tenant and neighborhood groups concerned over luxury development that locks out lower-income residents and allows for unrestricted conversions.
John Fisher, a tenant activist who lives on West 45th Street, said he wants to see more details on the proposal.
“Residential conversions depend on a lot of things, like what is the [affordability] based on,” he said. “If it’s just luxury housing, then developers are going to have a field day.”
In his speech, Adams also referenced a plan to rezone Staten Island’s North Shore and hinted at a plan to better tackle sources of income discrimination by landlords – a pervasive problem plaguing efforts to house homeless and low-income New Yorkers with rent subsidies.
“If you tell a potential tenant that you don’t accept Section 8 vouchers or other rental assistance, guess what?” Adams said. “That tenant might be an actor hired by the city, and we are going to take enforcement action against you.”