BY ANDREW BERMAN | For years, residents of our neighborhoods have fought to keep development, especially along our waterfront, low-rise and in scale with our community.
But that long-standing effort now faces a serious new threat. Legislation passed by the state Assembly and Senate in June — with very little notice and almost no public discussion — allows air rights from the Hudson River Park to be sold and used one block inland, potentially anywhere from 59th St. to Chambers St. Money from the sale would go toward the park, but the air rights would increase the size of development along the waterfront. That legislation is now on Governor Cuomo’s desk.
What to do about and how to respond to this new legislation, and its potential impact upon our waterfront and our neighborhood, will be the subject of a town hall meeting being held by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation and more than 20 other Village, Chelsea, Soho and Tribeca groups, at 6:30 p.m. on Wed., Nov. 13, at Our Lady of Guadalupe / St. Bernard’s Church, 328 W. 14th St., between Eighth and Ninth Aves. Such a meeting is so important because the public still knows very little about this measure, how it will work, and what they can do about it.
For example, we still don’t know how many air rights there are. The Hudson River Park Trust, which came up with this plan, and our local state legislators — all of whom voted for the legislation, introduced by Assemblymembers Glick and Gottfried — say more measuring and calculating still need to be done before they can know for sure. And there are some still-unsettled questions about which of the park’s piers do or don’t have air rights.
But the Trust and the legislators think there is currently about 1.6 million square feet of air rights that the legislation allows to be transferred and used in our neighborhoods — even more, if existing park pier structures are dismantled, as is envisioned in some cases. According to city data, the 454-foot-tall Trump Soho Condo Hotel is about 250,000 square feet; this means there is at least an additional six Trump Soho’s worth of air rights currently in the park that could potentially be used along our waterfront, on top of the millions of square feet of development the existing zoning already allows there.
About 600,000 of those 1.6 million square feet of air rights come from Pier 40, which is important to know because any air rights from that pier will likely only be used within Community Board 2. (According to published reports, the current pier-shed structure on Pier 40 has about 730,000 square feet of space, which is how many additional air rights would be created and could be used for inland development if the shed were to be demolished).
We are also trying to ascertain how exactly “one block inland” from the park is defined, which is where the state legislation says the air rights may be used. In some cases, such as around Weehawken St. or between W. 13th and 14th Sts., what qualifies as “one block” is not entirely clear. And between 14th and 15th Sts., where the Hudson River Park extends inland to 10th Ave., it would appear the air rights can be used as far east as Ninth Ave.
When and how the air rights could be used is also a critical unanswered question. The Trust and state legislators both say that while the legislation allows the air rights to be sold for development inland, they cannot actually be used on those inland spots until and unless a second step is taken by the city or the state also to allow it.
Given the vaguely worded state legislation, many of us are not so sure, and believe it may be possible under certain conditions for the air rights to be used without a second city or state action. While no attempt to do so appears imminent right now, this remains an important long-term question that needs to be resolved.
The second step, or steps, which the Trust and state legislators say will determine where air rights will be used are a state “General Project Plan,” or a city rezoning, or possibly more than one of each. The exact terms of a G.P.P. would be decided by the governor, the Assembly speaker and the state Senate majority leader — Albany’s proverbial “three men in a room.” In such a case, our local communities would have little or no leverage over the final outcome; G.V.S.H.P. and several of our fellow community groups have already written to the governor to say that such a process is unacceptable.
Unfortunately, the other option is not that much better. A city rezoning must be approved by the City Council and also the City Planning Commission, the latter which is controlled by the mayor. Because the City Council gives a lot of deference to the local councilmember on land use issues, local communities can have some leverage over the outcome. But the full Council can ignore the wishes of the local councilmember; plus, that councilmember may vote against the wishes of his or her own community. The N.Y.U. expansion plan, the rezoning of St. Vincent’s Hospital for condo development and the Chelsea Market rezoning, allowing large additions atop that historic complex, were all approved through this process.
Finally, we need to know where the air rights can be used in this “one block inland” zone. In the Village, some sites are probably safe from possible air rights transfers — such as those that we have successfully fought to get landmarked in recent years, and those with co-op and condo buildings, which are hard to demolish because the consent of all owners would be needed.
This leaves two kinds of sites where air rights could be transferred and used — those with “contextual zoning,” which limits the allowable size and height of new development, and those without.
G.V.S.H.P. and many Villagers fought hard for and got contextual zoning for a patchwork of sites between Morton and Horatio Sts. in 2005. (We sought it for a much broader extent, but the city only consented to a more-limited area.) Because of the strict height caps contextual zoning creates, the only way the air rights could be used on these sites would be if these hard-fought-for protections were undone. This would be a tremendous blow to the community.
The other option is for the air rights to be used on sites with no contextual zoning. These are sites that do not have specific height limits, and the primary limitation upon new development’s size is the number of square feet the zoning allows to be built there. Allowing air rights to be transferred from the park to these sites would increase the number of square feet that could be built there, and would mean that new development would become bigger, or taller — or both — as compared to what could be built currently.
For example, the St. John’s Center building, across from Pier 40, has no contextual zoning, and is being looked at as a potential receiving site for air rights. The current zoning allows 1 million square feet of development on that very large site. (Using the aforementioned city data, that’s the equivalent of four Trump Soho’s, or about the size of the Chrysler Building or The New York Times headquarters at Eighth Ave. and 41st St.) But if air rights were added, the new structure could be even larger. There are several other sites in the Meatpacking District and elsewhere in this corridor where air rights could be transferred that similarly have no landmark protections, no contextual zoning, and no co-op or condo buildings, and thus could face similar air rights development scenarios, albeit on a smaller scale.
The only alternative to these scenarios is the possibility of using the air rights to expand the allowable uses that could be developed on a site, rather than the development’s allowable size. For example, could air rights be used to grant a developer the right to build a 50,000-square-foot residential building on a site that currently only allows a 50,000-square-foot hotel or office building to be constructed? There is some precedent for doing so, though this exact maneuver has never been done before. We have asked about the feasibility of this option with city and state officials, and are researching the answer ourselves.
If it turns out this is not possible, then there will be just two troubling possible routes for using the air rights: stripping contextual zoning protections we fought for specifically to limit the size of development, or allowing even larger development on sites without contextual zoning, where many of us would probably say the permitted size of new development is already too great. Neither option that the legislation leaves us with seems very appealing.
To be fair, a city rezoning or a state G.P.P. could be undertaken at any time to allow larger development along our waterfront. But the difference is that this new legislation links increasing the size of development along our waterfront to the sale of air rights to fund the Hudson River Park. This creates a massive incentive for allowing this increased development to happen, and provides a powerful tool to any developer seeking to sell their plans to the city and state officials who will decide their fate, and the powerful editorial boards who frequently weigh in on and influence these decisions.
Clearly, we have our work cut out for us. Please join your neighbors at the town hall at 328 W. 14th St. at 6:30 p.m. on Wed., Nov. 13, to find out more about what you can do.
Berman is executive director, Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation