AIR RIGHTS TRANSFER II: OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS
Zoning and the Waterfront
Unlike any other public park in the city, the Hudson River Park is zoned for development, not just residential and commercial, but manufacturing. The district so zoned extends from Chambers Street north to West 59th Street along the west side of West Street (State Highway 9W) 800 feet over the Hudson River to the Pierhead Line. How did this unique circumstance come to be? The manufacturing districts mapped in 1961 were based on land-use patterns of 1955, and the zoning has remained largely unchanged, with one third of the waterfront still zoned for industrial uses including Hudson River Park. The zoning map still shows the elevated Miller Highway as an existing structure.
As pointed out in the December issue of WestView News, a zoning district specifies use and bulk on any given lot. Bulk is defined as Floor Area Ratio (FAR) which is the ratio of built floor area to the area of the lot on which it sits. The Hudson River Park is zoned M2-3 which permits Passenger Ship Terminals and many municipal facilities with a maximum FAR of 2 and “a maximum base height before setback of 60 feet,” all exempt from parking requirements (See Zoning Handbook 2011 Edition); however, here we have an anomaly, where the “lot” is a combination of dry land between West Street and the Hudson River and the river itself containing structures on pilings as well as open water. Since there are no mapped streets, the entire 550 acres of park land might be considered a single lot. The exact language and definition of terms will have to be answered by the City Planning Department which will have to create the zoning district and regulations before any transfer of “unused” development rights can take place. These proposed zoning changes will have to be reviewed by the adjacent community boards before being submitted to the City Council and the Mayor for adoption, a process which will take place next year. I was struck by the fact that the photograph accompanying the description in the Zoning Manual for M2 districts was of a pier on the Hudson River at 59th Street.
In the section entitled “Waterfront Zoning,” the Zoning Handbook states that “in medium and high-density contextual districts, waterfront development generally follows the same bulk rules as upland development . . . In non-contextual medium- and high-density districts, taller buildings are permitted, but a sense of openness at the water’s edge is ensured by rules controlling height, the length of buildings parallel to the shoreline and the footprints of towers. . . . To prevent excessive density and bulk generated by portions of land under water on a zoning lot, lot area seaward of the bulkhead line may not be used (author’s emphasis) to generate floor area. Piers and platforms, however, may transfer floor area to the landward portion of the zoning lot.”
To put the FAR into context, it is well to remember that 2 is one of the lowest, as contrasted to the recently proposed East Midtown Subdistrict that stretches to a high of 30, producing a 120 story tower covering a quarter of a lot adjacent to Grand Central Terminal. It is also important to remember that FAR alone does not place a height limit. That is done by establishing a contextual district with height limits as was done for Brooklyn Heights.
Vision 2020, the New York City Comprehensive Waterfront Plan, published by the City Planning Department in March 2011, lays out a long term direction. Special attention is given to protecting natural areas along the West Side waterfront. The entire West Side of Manhattan is listed as a Significant Coastal and Wildlife Habitat based on findings by federal, state and city agencies. The map of the “blue network” shows five canoe and boat launches within the Hudson River Park. The building of the park requires permits from city, state, and federal agencies. Emphasis is placed on obtaining funds from federal as well as city and state agencies. The report concludes, “New York City can seek to partner with New York State and New Jersey and other municipalities and institutions in the region (such as metropolitan planning organizations and the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey) to advocate for federal funds.” Due to the park’s vulnerability to future likely tidal surges, the plan says that a general approach to inevitable climate change is “adaption strategies for our waterfront and waterways to build climate resilience in response to existing and projected climate hazards.” The park and adjacent residential areas are all located in one of the three Hurricane Evacuation Zones. The plan contains many specific recommendations for the park.
Benefits of Sale of “Unused” Development Rights
Last year, the State Legislature gave unanimous support to the HRPT to sell “unused” development rights existing in the park. These will be defined during the Uniform Land Use Review Process (ULURP) in which local community boards and other individuals and organizations will participate in an advisory capacity. The locations, but not the amount of the unused air rights, are basically irrelevant because it is all one five-mile district. The adjacent community will be most concerned to where the rights will be received and how their use will change the character of their community. The receiving area now proposed extends up to “one block” east of West Street along the full five-mile length of the park.
Currently, there may already exist unused development rights under the existing zoning which not only allow a taller building on the lot, but also next door through a provision called “zoning lot merger.” Furthermore, property owners may seek and receive zoning changes from the City or hardship relief from the Board of Standards and Appeals. No benefits to the park occur under these current provisions. Another provision of zoning permits a Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) which will form the bedrock of the proposed Hudson River Park Transfer District. Currently, the High Line enjoys such benefits under the West Chelsea Special District. “…The district contains regulations to facilitate enjoyment of the High Line including a floor area transfer mechanism to preserve light, air and views as well as floor area bonuses related to access and open space development.” In the case of the proposed HRP District, the proceeds of the sale of unused development rights would flow not only to development of the park, but also to improvements to the receiving parcels that would benefit the community, including improved design, ground level plazas, parks and gardens framing entries, and view corridors to the river. It will be up to the local community to weigh these benefits against the perceived downside of a high, slender tower whose long, wand-like shadow would swing across the park in the morning and the West Village and Chelsea in the afternoon.
Ms. Wils stressed that “the air rights would essentially create a capital and endowment fund that would support the building of the remainder of the park at a cost of approximately $250 million over 10 years, not including future parks at Piers 40 and 76, and help endow the operations and capital maintenance of $30 million. Since the park has justifiably contributed vastly to the property values along the West Side, it only makes sense that what is good for the park is good for the community and visa versa.” Likewise, it is believed that creation of an improvement district would ensure a flow of a tiny proportion of tax revenue directly to maintenance of the park and adjacent community of around $10 million/year.
Opportunities to Shape Our Future
The Legislature, the Governor, the City Council, and the Mayor dropped the ball by walking away from one of the largest and most important historic urban waterfront parks in the country before its completion, leaving the job to a vastly underfunded agency with slim resources. It should become a city park extension of Riverside Park with the HRPT folded into a conservancy similar to the Central Park Conservancy when it is completed. The proposed TDR is one remedy for funding its completion. Andrew Berman, Executive Director of the Greenwich Village Society of Historic Preservation, proposed an important precondition which should be embedded in the proposed TDR zoning: a down-zoning of the district to “shrink wrap” it, removing most of the existing unused air rights, thus both protecting community character, while giving greater incentive to owners to purchase rights intended to benefit the park.
The new receiving areas could provide beautiful entry clusters to the park. They could provide a more lively sidewalk promenade along the east side of West Street making it more inviting for living, shopping, dining, and strolling under a rich canopy of trees overlooking the Hudson River. West Street itself could become both a more attractive entry into lower Manhattan and less of a barrier to those of us walking to the park. Traffic should be calmed to a speed commensurate with such boulevards as Park Avenue or Broadway. Pedestrian crosswalks should occur at every block and signal times should be timed for a safe full crossing by seniors, infirm, children, wheelchairs and parents with strollers. The medians need major landscape improvements, perhaps with art works. The entire road should be no more than six lanes (It is seven in some locations) and might be reduced to four moving lanes as on Broadway and Park Avenue. West Street should be returned to the city as a parkway, integral with the park, for cars only, similar to the Central Park drives, and consistent with the traffic now on the West Side Highway above 59th Street.
The proposed Hudson River Park TDR deserves serious consideration to help the Trust achieve financial stability and improve our community and its waterfront. It will continue the enormously attractive development already completed during the past 20 years by the Trust. Thus we will extend our arms to welcome this beautiful river by a city which reflects its beauty. We members of the community must remain fully informed, involved, and committed to assure that the job is done well.