Preservationist: Park air-rights transfers could radically impact waterfront propertiesJune 24, 2013 • By The Villager
Last updated Mon., June 24, 8:27 p.m.
BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Local politicians are hailing the State Legislature’s passage last week of modifications to the Hudson River Park Act.
The Assembly passed the bill Thursday, and the state Senate passed it around 5 a.m. Saturday after an all-night marathon to wind up the Legislative session.
But Andrew Berman, the Village’s leading preservationist, is up in arms, saying the public should have been consulted about the bill’s biggest and most dramatic change — the provision allowing the Hudson River Park Trust to transfer the park’s unused development rights one block inland to the west.
“This is possibly hundreds of thousands and millions of square feet [of development rights],” Berman told The Villager early Monday afternoon.
Pier 40 alone has a massive amount of air rights, the preservationist added, noting, “I’ve been told there’s a couple of hundred thousand square feet there.”
Under the bill, which awaits the governor’s signature, revenue from the Pier 40 air rights sale would specifically have to be funneled back into repairs for the ailing West Houston St. pier.
The Village and Chelsea could both be radically impact by the new provision, according to Berman.
Berman said he is, first of all, concerned the bill was passed so quickly, but also that there doesn’t seem to be any study about the air rights transfers and their potential impact on the Lower West Side.
“I’ve asked people, and no one is aware of it,” he said of whether there was a study about the air rights transfers.
Another huge question, Berman said, is whether — now that the state has given its approval to the air rights transfers — the city will still have a review role under ULURP (the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure) or even by a special permit through City Planning. Or will the park just be able to start transferring air rights A.S.A.P. — without any review at all?
“A bill which has such huge ramifications for our community was approved with very little consultation and very little analysis of the impact that it would have on the affected communities,” Berman said. “Even blocks that are currently developed — if they could access thousands of square feet of development rights, they could be developed further as a result.”
Asked for a potential site that could be impacted, he said, “The ‘car wash / gentlemen’s club block’ north of the St. John’s Building [between Clarkson and Leroy Sts.] — basically, sites that are not landmarked and don’t have contextual zoning that don’t limit what could be squeezed in there.
“It’s not clear what the full implications of the bill are,” Berman said. “But the speed with which this moved — and with lack of consultation and lack of information about its impacts — is frankly quite disturbing. … There should have been hearings. There should have been consultations with affected communities. There should have been very clear analysis of the scope of development that this could allow and what the impact could be.
“We understand that there is an imperative to find new ways to find revenue for the park,” Berman added, “but this was so sudden and dramatic.”
Asked who should be held accountable, Berman said, “This was an act of the State Legislature.”
The director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation said he’s working on a response and has been in touch with the offices of Assemblymembers Richard Gottfried and Deborah Glick and state Senator Brad Hoylman.
Assemblymember Gottfried told The Villager that he didn’t believe there had been a full study done of the air rights transfers. This is partly because, he said, discussions involving development, by their nature, are always “speculative,” depending on the real estate market.
Speaking on Monday, Assemblymember Glick said she was happy with what had been achieved in the bill, but she added, “Like all negotiated bills, there are compromises that were made on all sides.”
Glick said her main objective was to keep inappropriate development out of the park.
“I’m totally thrilled that we prevented the Trust from permitting any residential or hotel use in the park,” she told The Villager on Monday. “That was something that they kept pressing for right until the end. And they wanted long-term leases at Pier 40 — they didn’t get that.
“I believe we have made a major lift by preventing any major development within the park,” she said. “I had a goal, and the goal was to preserve Pier 40 for the playing fields and to prevent major hotel and residential development in the park — and these were accomplished.”
As for Berman, Glick fired back, “I don’t remember Andrew Berman being in on the Pier 40 discussion,” noting the preservationist was nowhere to be found when she was busy fighting off efforts to put, first, a soccer stadium and then, residential towers and a hotel on the sprawling Lower West Side pier.
For his part, Berman admitted that his group, G.V.S.H.P., tends not to get involved in issues west of the West Side Highway. But he said the society did get involved in fighting the “Vegas on the Hudson” plan for Pier 40 by The Related Companies five years ago because its massive impact would have rippled out into and affected the Village.
As for whether the air rights transfers from the park to east of the highway would undergo the city’s ULURP public review, Glick said the bill says, “to the extent…permitted under local zoning ordinances,” so that would seem to indicate ULURP would apply.
In fact, she said of the air rights transfer provision, “I would have rather not seen it done, but I wasn’t the only one in the Assembly majority.”
It wasn’t clear if she was referring only to Gottfried, or perhaps also to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.
As for why there were no public hearings on the proposed legislative changes, Glick said, “We don’t have hearings on everything. We didn’t have hearings on speed cameras. It’s not required, and the circumstances were what they were: The city pushed hard, the Trust pushed hard. And yet we were successful in blocking the inappropriate development that they were desperate to include.”
Glick added, “There were things in the original bill that were definitely worse.” She noted there had been “several iterations” of the bill.
Asked when the most recent round of iterations of the bill had started, she said, “I don’t know,” adding, “I don’t want to misspeak.”
At another point, she said, the Trust basically is “always working on a bill.”
Arthur Schwartz, vice chairperson of the Hudson River Park Advisory Council, lost no time in criticizing his frequent political foe, blasting Glick over the fact that there was zero public review of these latest modifications to the park act.
“We had three or four public hearings on the proposal to build residential housing on Pier 40,” Schwartz said, referring to hearings last year. “I mean, where is this Deborah who is rallying the troops? Where did she go?
“She didn’t decide to just go along with it — she put her name on the bill.”
Schwartz said Madelyn Wils, the Trust’s president, was at the advisory council’s meeting on Monday and discussed the air rights transfer provision. Basically, there are 1.6 million square feet of unused air rights in the park available for sale right now, according to Wils. The park’s upland portion — the part of the park on land — doesn’t have any air rights. And only piers that are designated for commercial use have air rights, namely, Chelsea Piers, and Piers 40, 57 and 76. Once piers are designated as public space they apparently lose their air rights.
Schwartz said the bill should at least contain restrictions on how much F.A.R. (floor air ratio) can be transferred to certain sites, height caps on development and so forth.
“It was not well thought-out and there should have been a lot of public comment on it,” he said. “I don’t get why there wasn’t any public review about it all, after all the yelling before about things being hidden from the public.”
Tobi Bergman, president of P3, a youth sports organization, said of the legislative modifications, “I was happy to see that Pier 40 remains protected from the worst kind of development, large-scale retail and entertainment projects, because the lease term there will remain 30 years.
“The best new opportunity will be the potential sale of air rights, creating the possibility of income for Pier 40 without new buildings at the pier. The ability to sell air rights may create the possibility of removing parts of the existing mammoth structure to open the park to the river.”
As for the lack of public awareness of the process, Bergman said, “Everyone loves transparency, but the legislative process isn’t usually that way, and in the end we need to rely on the people we elect to legislate, for better or for worse.”