Air Rights from Hudson River Park Even More Vast Than Previously Disclosed

Advocates Call for Measures to Limit Use, and Prevent Overdevelopment

At a Community Board 2 public hearing in February, Hudson River Park Trust President Madelyn Wils for the first time publicly acknowledged that the legislation passed by the State legislature in 2013 creates and allows the transfer of air rights from a vastly larger portion of the Hudson River Park than previously disclosed. Instead of only creating transferable air rights from the nine “commercial piers” within the park (where some limited development is currently allowed), as previously claimed, the legislation actually creates transferable air rights from all the park’s piers, numbering more than twenty. This increases by hundreds of thousands, and possibly millions, of square feet the amount of air rights the legislation allows to be transferred from the park to inland areas. The legislation was introduced by Assembly members Deborah Glick and Richard Gottfried, and approved by local State Senators Brad Hoylman and Daniel Squadron.

That the legislation might have enabled air rights transfers from more than just the commercial piers in the park is a point the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation had been raising for some time. This was one of many outstanding questions about the impact of the legislation which remains unclear, including how far inland the air rights could be transferred and what process is required for transferring them.

Confirmation of this information drives home the point that limits need to be placed on the use of the air rights from the park, or we will one day find ourselves facing enormous and inappropriate development inland fueled by air rights transfers. Thus far the Trust and some of the other proponents of the legislation have said these fears are unfounded – the Trust and City will never use air rights from beyond the commercial piers, and air rights transfers can only happen when approved through the ULURP process, which requires approval of the City Planning Commission and City Council, with input from the Community Board and the Borough President.

But this only tells part of the story. The ULURP process is far from a guarantee of a good outcome; it has given us the NYU expansion plan, the St. Vincent’s/Rudin rezoning, and the Chelsea Market expansion, to name a few. And verbal assurances about what current players will or won’t do not only have no impact upon future players, but are not even binding upon current players. It is certainly not without precedent for government officials to promise one thing and later do another, especially when a potentially vast amount of real estate money is involved.

Instead, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation and more than a dozen west side community groups are calling on city and state officials to take steps to ensure that Hudson River Park air rights are not used inappropriately in the future, and do not result in overdevelopment of our neighborhood. We are calling for:

  • State and city legislators to prohibit air rights transfers from the non-commercial piers, and extinguish any development rights from recreational areas of the park
  • Exhaustion of measures to fund the park without upzoning our neighborhood before any upzoning is considered. Such measures include pairing any air rights transfer with a downzoning (thus not increasing the allowable size of development), linking air rights transfers to changes in allowable use without increasing the allowable size of development, and assessing a fee on all new development in air rights transfer zone which would fund the park, thus making funding not dependent upon increasing the allowable size of development.
  • Establishing what the financial needs of the park are and making approval of any air rights sale contingent upon meeting this established standard of need.

The Trust and city and state officials appear to be very focused on coming up with a mechanism that will allow some of the air rights which the State legislation has created to be transferred from the park, thus funding the park by enabling increased development inland. They say they want this done through a consultative process with the community that will result in an outcome which can be broadly supported.

Hopefully this will be the case, but this only addresses part of the issue created by the legislation creating air rights from the park. It’s good if we create an acceptable mechanism that allows some of the air rights to be used now. But unless we also prohibit unacceptable uses of the vast remaining pool of air rights in the future, we are setting ourselves up for disaster.

It would be naïve to assume that incredibly powerful real estate interests are not going to seek ways to access these remaining air rights to allow them to build much larger buildings along our waterfront. They only need to find one point in time in the future where they can convince the powers that be to let them do this, and once approved, such transfers are irreversible.

That is why it is so important that we insist now upon putting in place safeguards and limits in relation to the use of air rights, to prevent this from taking place. If these are not put in place at the beginning of the process, it is unlikely they ever will be. And without them, I believe it is virtually guaranteed that we will see overuse and abuse of this provision at some point in the future, resulting in irreversible overdevelopment of our waterfront.

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