Pier air rights may open a Pandora’s box of development

BY ANDREW BERMAN  |  In late June we learned that the state Assembly and Senate had passed legislation that, among other things, allows the sale of air rights from piers within the Hudson River Park for development one block inland, with the money from the sales to be used to fund the park. This startling news has raised serious concerns about exactly how much additional development this will lead to, where and what the impact will be.

Unfortunately, none of the answers to these questions are fully clear yet, in part because of the complicated rules governing development in New York. But it’s also partly because very little analysis of these questions was done prior to the Legislature’s approval of this measure, and because exactly how this will ultimately play out still remains to be seen.

This legislation may not, in and of itself, result in a wall of skyscrapers bordering the park. But, at the very least, it may facilitate substantially larger development on the blocks bounded on the west by West St., all the way from Chambers St. to 59th St. Worse, it may open the door to, and provide an incentive and rationale for, rezoning parts of our neighborhood to permit even larger development than just the air-rights transfers, in themselves, would allow. And it is yet another step toward requiring real estate development as the price for securing public amenities and infrastructure — a disturbing trend which has become increasingly common in New York City in recent years.

While it is unclear exactly how the transfer of air rights from park piers will ultimately play out, the scenarios range from worrisome to much worse. The worst-case scenario is that the legislation has already made air-rights transfers immediately possible from piers within the park to inland sites for development. Most of those behind the legislation, including state Senator Brad Hoylman, who voted to approve the measure, and Assemblymembers Deborah Glick and Dick Gottfried, who sponsored it, believe this is not the case. I am hopeful that this is true. But there is enough ambiguity in the language of the legislation that further investigation is needed to conclusively prove this — especially given that state legislation trumps New York City zoning rules, and it is those city zoning rules that the bill’s authors claim prevent the use of the pier’s air rights inland right now.

But even in a best-case scenario, approval of this legislation was the first step in a two-step process to allow these air-rights sales and transfers to take place. And this decision was made with virtually no notice to or consultation with the affected inland communities, outside of some discussion within committees charged with overseeing the development of the Hudson River Park (and even many members of those committees have said they were completely blindsided by this plan).

In response to the questions we have raised, the Hudson River Park Trust has recently put forward a figure of around 1.6 million square feet as the total of unused air rights currently available under this new rule. To give you some sense of how much this is, the 30-story towers of N.Y.U.’s Silver Towers complex on Bleecker St. — currently some of the tallest and most prominent buildings in the Village — are about 200,000 square feet each. So 1.6 million square feet would be the equivalent of eight more of these towers that currently dominate the skyline of the Village.

But there is reason to believe that the amount of potential air rights ultimately may be even greater. The 1.6 million-square-foot figure is based upon current conditions on the piers. But some of these piers, such as Pier 40, at W. Houston St., may eventually have some or all of their structures (pier sheds) removed, or replaced with smaller ones. The current Pier 40 structure is several hundred thousand square feet; so if even just part of the structure is eventually removed — say, 200,000 square feet — that creates an additional 200,000 square feet of air rights that, under this new legislation, could be transferred inland for development on those neighboring blocks.

The 1.6 million-square-foot figure also assumes that only those piers that are designated as “commercial” piers, such as Pier 40, Chelsea Piers and Pier 76, among others, have air rights, and that “recreational” piers, such as those at Christopher, Charles and Jane Sts., do not. But this is based upon interpretations of zoning regulations by the city, and the city has been known to change such interpretations before. In recent years, for instance, the city has reinterpreted zoning rules to allow “condo-hotels” in manufacturing zones, and to allow air rights from properties restricted to community uses to be used for private condo development. More importantly, we’ll soon have a new mayor, which means those in charge of making these interpretations will soon be changing, as well. While a new mayor does not have unlimited latitude in this regard, there is room to maneuver on these sort of development and zoning issues, and past mayors have certainly done so before.

But even if the amount of air rights are exactly what state legislators and the Hudson River Park Trust are currently telling us, and their use on inland blocks would still require an additional city or state action, this is not very reassuring. Neither a city rezoning (a “ULURP”) or a “general project plan” by the state — the next-step processes that would be required to use the air rights — guarantees a favorable outcome for the community. In fact, experience has shown just the opposite is more likely the case.

And both the city and state processes are ultimately controlled by forces far beyond our neighborhood. A rezoning initiated by the city or a private developer is decided by appointees of the mayor, the five borough presidents and the 51 members of the City Council, who may have a very different view of what is right for our community than we do. And a “general project plan” by the state is decided by forces even farther removed from our community, in Albany. Both processes involve limited, if any, community input, and we have seen how community input can be ignored in city rezonings, as with New York University’s expansion plan.

But perhaps most disturbingly, this new mechanism creates a strong incentive for our current zoning to be reopened to not only allow the transfer of air rights from the piers — which would allow larger development inland to fund the park — but to go beyond that and allow even greater development in our neighborhoods as part of the deal. Based upon experiences in recent years, it is easy to imagine a scenario in which we will be told that in order to get the “benefit” of an air-rights transfer from the piers to fund the Hudson River Park, we will have to accept a zoning change with additional, undesirable elements — whether it be even larger development, undesirable uses or zoning changes elsewhere. This has been the consistent pattern in most, though not all, rezonings put forward by the city when some public benefit is attached.

I don’t mean to imply that the entire picture emerging from the adoption of this air-rights transfer provision is automatically doom and gloom. Is it possible that limited air-rights transfers could be allowed to sites one block inland where larger development than currently allowed is appropriate? Could the tradeoff ultimately be worth it to help the park? Is it even possible that as part of the rezonings or “general project plans” that may be necessary to allow this to happen, other benefits could be afforded our community, or other positive changes made to development rules in our neighborhood?

It is possible. And that is exactly what those who made this air-rights transfer provision possible now have a responsibility to ensure happens, should this provision be used.

But frankly, that will be no easy task. And with this new development-rights transfer legislation, our ongoing fight to preserve the scale and character of our neighborhood, especially along the waterfront, just got a good deal more challenging. This new provision has opened a proverbial Pandora’s box of development potential. And in our heavily real estate industry-influenced city, the outcome of that is, I believe, much more likely to be bad than good.


  Berman is executive director, Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation

The Villager encourages readers to share articles:

Comments are often moderated.

We appreciate your comments and ask that you keep to the subject at hand, refrain from use of profanity and maintain a respectful tone to both the subject at hand and other readers who also post here. We reserve the right to delete your comment.

29 Responses to Pier air rights may open a Pandora’s box of development

  1. This transfer just doesn’t make sense. Aren’t air rights something that exist over real property of owned land? Then how does a temporary structure like a pier even have air rights to sell? If the pier is wiped out in the next hurricane, do the air rights still exist? If the part of the pier's pilings are too rotten to repair, and the pier is made smaller, do the tall buildings allowed have to be shortened? Can developers build more piers in the river just to create additional air rights? I’ll bet that air rights over water was never intended when this concept was originally put into law. It really seems like the HRPT has pushed our elected leaders into making up stuff, because they can’t do their own job of generating philanthropy.

  2. This community has lawyers, activists, business owners big and small, politicians, venture capitalists, the gamut.

    Why are we waiting to be rescued? Why are we assuming that real estate development is the only ticket to completion of this park? Why are we sitting around and waiting for someone else to do what we can more than adequately do ourselves?

    This pier is ours to develop, and we are fully capable of getting it done.

    I ask again, why are we afraid of taking a risk and experiencing the success which comes with risk? When did Greenwich Village become a community stuck in neutral…? Afraid to build something ourselves.

  3. yes, if precious air rights are going to be sold off and evening shadows to be cast on large swaths of the west village, then aren't there many more important uses for this devil's money than a friggin' pier??? that's just insane!

    • Patrick Shields

      friggin' PARK, my friend. PARK. You, and everyone else, who advocates for demolishing the pier, is/are advocating for demolishing a PARK. Already has sports fields, housing an incredible amount of youth and families, and with more of the pier yet to be developed into passive/green space. The point is for the pier to pay for its own development so that the "devil's money" you speak of, need not be given away at all. I trust you did not mean to misrepresent my stance. I am staunchly pro-pier, and staunchly anti this air rights deal.

  4. Judith Chazen Walsh

    Be careful about your vote…..is everyone financed and owned by developers? Check out who finances campaigns before you vote. Pretty soon developers will build voting booths that are pre-pogrammed

    • Patrick Shields

      Indeed. I've been trying to nail down if any locals are financed by "Jobs For New York", the REBNY front.

    • Patrick Shields

      So far in Manhattan they have Margaret Chin and Assemblymember Micah Kellner. With 20 or so more endorsements to make citywide.

  5. Patrick Shields

    All developers, no unions, the donors from Jobs For New York.. http://therealdeal.com/blog/2013/07/18/here-are-t

    Why hasn't Hotel and Restaurant responded to the harsh anti-union stipulations in the new law written by our Assemblymembers? If it was written by our Assemblymembers…

  6. lots of gripes, no solutions. Cmon people, someone needs to raise money to pay for upgrades to the park, and it's not coming from more taxes.

    • Been pitching this solution since 2008, with specifics, and generally since 2003:

      Identifying my above posts as a gripe without a solution means you didn't read the posts or click on the links.
      I have a solution, it's been there for years, I've been pitching it for years, take a look.
      Major League Soccer didn't come to the Pier with an open checkbook for nothing. We can run with that idea, and make it better, and more community amenable.

      Raise the money.
      Repair the pier and the pilings. Build the arena and the park.
      Use the revenues for the arena for ongoing maintenance pier and park-wide.

      It's better than the air rights solution, and its an appropriate use for the pier's "commercial node".

      • Patrick, I appreciate your passion and knowledge of this issue, but if you've been "pitching this solution since 2008" and still clearly have little support but your own, well, at some point you've got to face reality — no one else wants a soccer stadium here!

        Soccer is just not a post-bohemian interest, and that's the folks who live around here now. A stadium would probably draw lots of people and be a financial winner at the gate, but the post-event costs of outsider traffic, garbage, security, utility services, hooliganism, and wear & tear will have to be paid by folks around here. That's because the negative effects of such a venue will end up on their blocks and door steps.

        If you want to pick a winner for this location, might I suggest an opera, dance and classical music venue? That's the kind of thing that people in this neighbor might get behind.

        • Your generalization of what interests people in this community is typical of the comments here which to speak for others. Let your neighbors speak for themselves.

          "Post-bohemian?" What does that mean? What interests "post-bohemians"? Would I recognize one on the street? Someone else will have to get behind your idea, frankly, or maybe you should, instead of waiting for someone else to do it. Come up with a plan as I have. I believe in what I believe will work on this pier, and will continue to do so either until it gets traction, or until something else does. Until shovel is in the ground. What have I got to lose? It's the only idea out there, and it's better than what our Assemblymembers are trying to saddle us with. Don't you think perhaps they may have written this legislation to light a fire under our collective a**es? My position has always been that SOMETHING has to get done, that a DECISION has to be made by this community, and proceeded with. And we haven't, and that is why we are now facing down this air rights legislation.

          WHATEVER goes on this pier will cause disruption of some sort, that is a fact, so some decision has to be made before it is lost. Your response is also typical of the incorrect and hysterical assumptions about soccer. Hooliganism, seriously? Show me evidence in the USA, where it is a middle and upper middle class, and extremely well behaved demographic. That is the usual slur against soccer, usually used by the right wing, who accuse the sport of being either "an immigrant sport", or "hooliganistic". Both code language for keeping the right wing and American football and baseball status quo. Sad to see Villagers going down that road rather than seeking change. A soccer arena in the Village would be an historic thumb in the eye to the status quo, perfectly in line with Village history. Immigrant Women's and Men's Soccer Club. ISCNY.

          There will be utility needs, and wear and tear for WHATEVER goes there. Why do people in this community (and anonymously as always) continue to assert that development of Pier 40 will somehow happen without disruption, change, or need for maintenance? That it will somehow magically be no different than now. That the park will somehow be magically reintroduced into the NYC Parks system and public funding suddenly plentiful. Those who have no mechanism in place for dismantling the HRPT (which I would support wholeheartedly) need to get on board some solution, before the entire west side is under assault by new development, and that includes the Village, and the waterfront.

          So very refined, your suggestion. But I assure you a small soccer arena would be better behaved than the Halloween Parade and the Pride Parade, both of which we welcome with appropriately open arms.

          Sad that you're worried about your blocks and doorsteps. I guess the Village should always stay exactly the same, and "outsiders" should stay away from your block.

          FYI, soccer is a public transportation sport in urban settings, always has been always will be. I still am amazed by the number of Villagers who routinely go to Yankee Stadium and Flushing for sports events, all the while assuming that anyone coming here would be a "hooligan".

          Would you come to a public forum to debate this? I don't see why the Pier 40 Champions won't make a call to the community for a serious discussion of its possibility, particularly considering the alarming possibilities of the air rights transfer.

  7. Again a major policy change that will impact the future of Greenwich Village is done without any public scrutiny. Just what is the agenda of the good liberal electeds that snuck this legislation through anyway.

    Do they not trust the residents of the West Village to be able to engage in discussion on an issue that has such long term impact as the transfer of air rights?

    I am dumbfounded when I realize that the Honorable Glick and the Honorable Hoylman have now joined the Honorable Richard Godfried in siding with the developer interests rather than putting both Governor Cuomo, Mayor Bloomberg and the City Council member Christine Quinn who was elected to represent the lower West Side on the spot. The tax abatement and giveaways that each of them have bee pushing through has resulted in a loss of tax revenues to such a degree that many tradition institutions and values in our community are eroded by the lack of funds. Soccer fields for the children whose families can afford to send them to private school may sound nice, but what about the traditional cultural values of the Village including its long involvement in the arts most specifically theater? Seniors again will get the short stick as they do now with so, little seating space that is supportive of the lower back .

    I have always look to Glick and now Hoylman to come up with progressive solutions that benefit the diverse community that still exists in the West Village. But this plan plays into the destruction of the Village as it has historically been. Please let’s have some public meetings on this and EVERY subject which will change not only the landscape but also the culture of the West Villager.

    We just saw how four village women with the support of Community Board 2 Chairman David Gruber snuck a conservancy takeover of Washington Square without any public hearing and essentially privatized a public park. A public hearing is the usual procedure for such a change in Park policy. We saw how the silence of elected officials allowed a frack gas transfer station to be built right next to a children’s playground in the Hudson Park Trust Park in the West Village without any public knowledge until the pipeline was being laid.

    I expect better from Assembly person Glick and State Senator Hoylman.

    Thank you once again Andrew Berman for staying on top of these issues and most importantly doing everything you can to alert and engaged the public on public policy issues that have the potential to fundamentally change what we call Greenwich Village.

  8. I sincerely hope that a potential looser interpretion of this as allowing the selling of air rights over recreational piers as well (rather than just the commercial/already developed ones) would be a step too far, after all. How can you have air rights over undeveloped (and undevelopable!) park land? I mean, what's next – the selling and transferring of air rights over Central Park?

    • Patrick Shields

      I may be mistaken and will ask land use experts for clarification, but it does appear to be the "commercial node" piers as covered under the original Trust Act. At least that's what is being intimated, hough not absolutely clarified. Very much our problem; that this was neither discussed nor clarified with certainty in advance, with community input. Therefore the call to contact Cuomo and indicate your opposition to signing the new law. We're not even being given indication of when it may go to his desk. Only vague procedural facts from Glick. "Couldbe now, could be then…we don't know".

      Played soccer in high school with a Lovric, in the late 70's.

  9. Carol F. Yost

    The advocacy for a new soccer stadium is well researched and thought out. However, I don't think this community is in the mood for a sports stadium nearby. I do think that opera, theater and dance would be more attractive.

    I certainly hope the air-rights-over-piers solution to the park's need for finances does not get very far. It is a frightening proposition. The whole idea behind maintaining this beautiful park is to give New York City more beauty, more light and air, more green space, more uncitified, more noncavernous areas to have as part of our lives. These air rights sales threaten to make us wind up with more constriction, darkness, towering buildings casting shadows, less open air, as payment for what the park will give us.

    • Patrick Shields

      Hi Carol. Pat from Bedford Street, above the antique store.
      What is your opera, theater and dance proposal for Pier 40, and how will you fund it?
      While the neighborhood is "not in the mood" for a small arena, according to you and others.
      Attractive, yes, but economically prudent in a saturated arts market?

      What is your plan? How will you fund Pier 40 with it, and cause the air rights issue to be moot?

      "Hoping" is not action. As I say to everyone, what is your plan? What is the plan?

    • Carol: Your assessment of the community's fear is on the mark. The question is what actions can the community take to change the rule that real estate must always be the power determining the outcome in a sustainable community. Why do our elected representative not think more the revisions of tax policies and rebates to billionaire developers that can be transferred to the quality spaces needed by human beings who live here. Science has already proven that exposure to greenery and open spaces is healing and calming for both children and adults. Living in a cement prison is where we are headed if we don't fight back on this issue. Less traffic, more food for the human spirit is indicated and why should it be denied to feed some corporate and real estate interests over our lives? Mr. Berman requests that we write our officials — let's do. and think too, about the next election….

  10. Carol F. Yost

    Let's face it: Most politicians, though elected by us with their promises always to keep our best interests (and wishes) at heart, get to thinking they are smarter than we are about what's best for our community. They become progressively more aloof from their constituents. Sometimes, it is true, it is at least partly because they've become corrupted by powerful corporate interests.

    We have to learn how to fight big and smart. I think our discussion should develop upon how to do that.

    • Patrick Shields

      Same thing as the last ten years. Complaining about politicians and not coming up with a plan. A vague notion of a discussion, and how this vague discussion (today? tomorrow?) "should develop upon how to do that".

      Pier 40 needs a solution, and it needs it NOW. What is your "HRPT undermining" business plan for Pier 40?
      I have one. It includes community and arts space in the leftover shed under the arena to the north pier, but those things will not pay for repair and construction, so I feel the arena (NOT A STADIUM) has to.

      If you, and others in the community, refuse to compromise on a valid solution, and continue to promote a fairy tale, magic, arts, opera and dance solution, please then define in these pages, in your next post, your ECONOMIC PLAN FOR PIER 40. With specifics. If you don't, you're going to get the air rights solution your Assemblymembers are about to foist upon you. Money magically appearing out of thin air, or being paid for by taxpayer dollars is gone. Done. Your Assemblymembers have given up on you…

      What is the community "in the mood" for, Carol? Why aren't there taxpayer dollars available for completing Pier 40?
      Why isn't there more money available for opera, theater and dance? Perhaps our taxpayer dollars have been going elsewhere? They have. To both egregious developer welfare, and to unemployment benefits for people who will readily accept it, while commenting in opposition to developers and in support of fairy tale financial endings.

      Thank god I'm not a politician. I love being able to tell the truth.

      Support a small soccer arena on Pier 40, if you are a pragmatic, lefty Villager. It is the only decent (and available) answer. Suggested by a neighbor who has run a business for almost 30 years, 21 of which have been in this community. I deal in facts, and budgets, and bills which get paid.

      The days of "comment" and "theory" for Pier 40 are long gone. This pier is threatened just as much as Saint Vincent's was, and there is no reason to believe it cannot be lost. If we do not oppose the air rights plan now, we WILL lose the community as we know it, and maybe the pier on top of that. They are going in for the kill, what are those of us who are realists prepared to do??

    • I guess my point is, we know how "to fight big and smart" already. Are you advocating "fighting big and smart seminars" or can this community just get down to the business of a solution? And implement it.
      "Let's learn how to fight big and smart" = Let's sit around and talk while Pier 40 gets demolished.
      I know how to say FU to developers and politicians. I know how to let Deborah Glick know she has failed on Pier 40 and allowed women to be sexually harassed at taxpayer expense.
      Pick a solution, I don't care, arts, soccer, whatever. I advocate soccer because I know it will be successful, and because it is consistent with pier use.
      Talk to me Carol, tell me how to pay for opera, theater and dance. And piling repair, and park and green space construction.

      This community needs to step up, because we are about to trade a minimal fix for a generation of development hell.

    • Yes!
      Which constituency was Assembly Member Dick Gottfried serving when he grandfathered in the heliport in Hudson River Park with this same legislation?
      Sneaking in a ridiculous piece of pork for as he puts it: the 1% the affluent who wanted to keep the heliport on parkland against the wishes if the rest of the community.

  11. Weiner, Assemblymember Micah Kellner, the hits just keep coming.
    And as if yesterdays additional outrages weren't enough to stir this community to become angry already, after these revelations yesterday we have Glick's office rushing to let the NY Times know that she was the one who brought the Kellner issue to the attention of the Speaker. Why now, why not four years ago, or two years ago when it happened again? Taking credit for something you should have done years ago, that is someone who is angling for the Speaker job. We elected this Assemblymember to be the person who protects women from harassment in their jobs, and she has let the weakest and most vulnerable up there be harassed, ultimately at taxpayer expense. We have to stop this air rights transfer. Ultimately she will be passing along this legacy of preservation battles to someone else after we have removed her from her job. Enough is enough already.

  12. Patrick Shields


    We can do even better than Kansas City on Pier 40, and we can do it ourselves, for benefit of park and community.

  13. regular reader

    One or two comments here and a person looks smart. A couple more and it just seems a lil' over-eager. More than that and one starts coming off as a badgering loon. No reader here is obligated to put forth an alternative answer, solution, or business plan. It's sad to see a rational idea pushed so ruthlessly that it totally turns off the people it is trying to persuade.

    • Patrick Shields

      They said the same thing about Jane Jacobs in her day, and about Andrew Berman early in his career. Relentlessness is how people get others to pay attention to good ideas.

      So, I reject your personal, anonymous, an cowardly post. Who you refer to as a "badgering loon" is a responsible small business owner, and active and protective neighbor. We haven't chased the incessant waves of drug dealers off of our block by being "sensible". We haven't kept the noise and bar traffic from overwhelming Bedford and Downing by keeping quiet.

      And I disagree with your assessment that readers aren't obligated to put forth plans. There are a lot of vague and hopeful Pier 40 ideas, with no substance. No legal or economic realism or prudence behind them. The Pier 40 discussion has to become concrete, and stay that way until it is safe.

      I argue as I do, because I can see this community losing Pier 40, as the hospital was lost. It's possible, a real threat, and this community is not taking it seriously enough to get together behind a solution. If the hospital wasn't a wake up call, what is? I consider this and the added insult of the air rights hijacking an emergency worth receiving criticism over. I don't care what you think, particularly since you forward it with the usual smug anonymity of the blog.

      Interesting that your criticism of me comes with an implication that I should blog in a manner and tone acceptable to you. That is arrogance, and hubris. I have three issues here that I criticize, two professional, one personal. Political hypocrisy and political laziness/ineffectiveness, and anonymity.

      I'd say it's likely you work in or around local politics professionally.

  14. YESTERDAY, The Wall Street Journel does some investigative reporting on the Trusts legislative scam on this topic and it ain't pretty.

    I'm sure Madelyn Wils PR flaks are already bombarding Lincoln Anderson to spin this!

  15. again, lots of gripes here. funniest one is that there's been "no public review". Really? How many RFPs has the HRPT put out, with full review? Multiple. How many committees have been formed and roundtables have occurred? Dozens. That doesn't take into account all the speeches, grandstanding, and proclamations by the politicians.

    There have been proposals by developers, citizens sports groups, school advocates, and others. Local families have gotten together to form their own advocacy groups for best use on pier.

    And no consensus has occurred. You can bitch and moan all you want about air rights and developers making profit, but there's been an exhaustive process to try to find a solution. The problem is, no one will compromise.

    Killing the golden goose.

    • Calling the pier a "golden goose" is just making things up. It's more like the anchor sinking everything else. Seriously, were it not for that pier the park would be finished by now.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

5 × seven =

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>