Out of thin air

Everyone, or almost everyone, was taken off guard last week, when the State Legislature approved a series of major changes to the 1998 Hudson River Park Act.

The most significant of these allows the park to sell its unused air rights for development one block inland.

According to the Hudson River Park Trust, the park — on its commercial piers — has about 1.6 million square feet of unused air rights. The Empire State Building has 2.77 million square feet of floor area, and the Trump Soho condo-hotel 300,000 square feet. So the park’s air rights equal more than half an Empire State Building, or more than five Trump Soho’s. In short, 1.6 million square feet is a whole lot of air rights.

What’s good about this is that any air rights sold from the park are, by definition, no longer in the park — meaning this limits large-scale development in the park. It could even happen that part of Pier 40’s pier shed could be razed and those now newly unused air rights then sold across the highway — thus, opening up the West Houston St. pier to views to the river.

Moving air rights out of the park is definitely a good thing. But what will it mean for the western edge of the Village and Chelsea? Tribeca has no commercial piers. Does that mean none of the park’s air rights will be transferred into Tribeca? Most of the park’s commercial piers are in Community Board 4 (Chelsea / Hell’s Kitchen). So will most of the air rights get transferred up there? How much of the park’s air rights will be able to be stacked at any one site? Will there be designated sites? Will Pier 40’s air rights have to transfer directly across the highway to the St. John’s Building, or can — and should — they go elsewhere?

No one seems to have any clear answers yet. Noreen Doyle, the Trust’s vice president, explained that the air rights transfers will all be done according to city zoning, and that it will likely be at least two years from now before anyone can actually start buying and using the park’s air rights. She said any project involving the transferred air rights would undergo the standard environmental reviews, meaning they would undergo the usual level of scrutiny.

“The city’s going to have to figure out with us how this will work,” she said.

That there has been no comprehensive study of all of this to date is concerning.

The way the bill’s language is crafted, Pier 40 — by which we also mean the youth leagues and other athletes that use it — is the big winner. Any proceeds from sale of the 15-acre pier’s copious air rights must go back into repair of its dilapidated infrastructure.

The secrecy with which the bill was passed was also troubling. The Trust maintains the air rights idea was periodically mentioned at community board meetings and in the media in the past year, but that’s different than notifying the community that there is definitely a pending bill and that it’s moving full-steam ahead! Public hearings would have allayed people’s concerns and also, no doubt, helped strategize on what to do with all these air rights and where to put them and what the impact will be.

“No legislation would happen over all in New York State if everything required a public hearing,” Doyle responded. Sorry, but we just don’t buy that. The public should have been more involved on such an important change.

Allowing air rights has had another consequence: Douglas Durst, former chairperson of the Friends of Hudson River Park who has been spearheading the plan for a Hudson River Park Neighborhood Improvement District, has pulled his funding from the NID effort. A source told us, “Until development [from the air rights] is quantified, you can’t ask people to pay into a NID.”

The NID special-tax district was already on the ropes. Now, we’re told, it’s on hold, and probably will be shelved.

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3 Responses to Out of thin air

  1. Let's hope you're right about the NID, although the current talking point from Friends of Hudson River Park is "the new legislation creates new options to generate capital funds while the NID will bring much-needed revenue for operations and maintenance." The threat that without the NID money, parts of the Park will have to be shut rings hollow in the face of HRPT's 2014 published budget that includes a greater than 13% increase for full time salaries and benefits, plus $162K budgeted for promotion, $100K for printing and reproduction (on top of $22K for signs and banners) and almost $30K for postage and overnight mail. HRPT Director Robert Steel should ask a former colleague from Wachovia’s cost cutting team to give a class on real-world, revenue-based budgeting. Hopefully there’ll be room in the $30K “educational training” budget line to pay a small honorarium for that person’s public service. See http://nohrpnid.blogspot.com/ to learn more about why the NID is a bad idea.

    • HRPT also spent tens of thousands of dollars on new branding for gods sake.
      Now that Friends of Hudson River Park is a Pay-for-Play organization with Diana Taylor calling the shots, when they hire a competent Development Director they can easily collect 10million dollars a year from their hedge fund babies.
      Mike Novogratz the former Trust Board member now chair of Friends whose company owns the St Johns Property exactly one block east of Pier 40 and coincidentally can now cash in on the new legislation to purchase air transfer rights to either flip or develop the property is sitting pretty.
      With no accountability and Ms. Wils LYING to the community the NID is a ridiculous tax and needs to be die a dignified death.

  2. We need less park, not more park. Everytime another new idea for the park comes along it causes more headaches, and costs locals more, and drives up demand that forces others out. What happened to the beauty of simplicity. HRP is just getting out of hand. I'm starting to hate this park.

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