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Rockefeller Center of the 21st Century? The Future of the Con Edison Waterside Plant

Four enormous city blocks, just south of the United Nations along the East River, offer a rare opportunity for a world-class development in Midtown Manhattan. Con Edison’s plan to close the Waterside plant now occupying the site could lead to the conversion of an isolated industrial area into a lively, mixed-use destination tied into the surrounding neighborhoods and connected to the East River. However, with this massive opportunity comes the potential to make colossal mistakes.

As a condition of the New York State Public Service Commission’s (PSC) approval of the disposition of the property to developer FSM East River Associates LLP, the proposed action is currently the subject of an environmental review. As required under SEQRA (the State Environmental Quality Review Act), Con Ed and the developer have prepared and submitted to the PSC a Draft Generic Environmental Impact Statement (DGEIS). The DGEIS sets forth the anticipated impacts of the proposed action on the environment as well as methods for mitigating those impacts.

On September 26, 2002, the Society offered its comments to the DGEIS at a public hearing called by the Public Service Commission. The Society’s testified on the failure of the DGEIS to take a “hard look” at the impact of the proposed action in a number of areas related to the design and planning principles that the Society believes should guide the development of the site. These principles include:

  • Connect to the city, by improving transit, adding ferry service, and creating safe pedestrian links and views over a passageway extending east beyond 39th and 40th Streets to the river. The DGEIS contains no references to ferry service as a way of mitigating the development’s impact on traffic, nor does it contain an adequate commitment to pedestrian passageways and view corridors.
  • Reach to the river, by building a public waterfront park on a deck over FDR Drive and linking existing riverfront esplanades to the north and south. Despite its potential to add vast amounts of open space to the development, the DGEIS omits any mention of a deck over FDR Drive.
  • Make a memorable place, by creating a distinct civic identity with public spaces and activities (including cultural uses) that attract visitors as well as nearby residents and workers, as well as exploring the creative reuse of the two historic generating plants on the site. The DGEIS lacks any discussion of cultural uses other than as contained in a superficial adaptive reuse analysis. The DGEIS incorrectly states that the proposed development (which includes the demolition of the generating plants) will have no effect on historic resources.

The Society’s principles are set forth in more detail in “Wide Open,” published last year (thanks to the generosity of State Senator Roy Goodman) after the Society convened a committee of board members, architects and engineers to explore the potential of the Con Ed site. “Wide Open” has been endorsed by community organizations, including Community Board 6 and the EMCSD (East Midtown Coalition for Sensible Development), and East Side elected officials.

Eventually, Con Edison and the developer will apply for a rezoning of the Waterside site under the City’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), at which time the project will undergo a second, more specific, environmental review. At this stage, the public will again have a chance to weigh in on the proposal. Although the developer has expressed a desire to create the “Rockefeller Center for the 21st Century,” only with the proper planning and consideration of the public interest is this goal within reach.