How Air Rights Could Radically Change the Waterfront (Part Two)
By Barry Benepe
Last month we emphasized the worst scenarios which could take place as the Hudson River Park starts to sell air rights.
Andrew Berman, Executive Director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, noted that the legislation—passed at the end of 2013 without any notification to the affected communities—allows the transfer of potentially millions of square feet of air rights from the Hudson River Park for additional development along four miles of shoreland one block inland.
This could take place in a thoughtful, intelligent way which will beautify and complement the edge of our waterfront park if the City Planning Commission plans appropriately and reaches out to get the community excited and involved.
Madelyn Wils, President and CEO of the Hudson River Park Trust, compares this district to the West Chelsea Special District—which preserves the High Line by allowing transfer of its air rights to properties in a carefully defined area surrounding it, including those along the Hudson River Park.
None of this can happen until, according to a spokesperson for the City Planning Department, “the development and adoption of a new zoning framework to allow transfers of unused development rights from the park to sites across route 9A [West Street].” Madelyn Wils has indicated that she would transfer such rights only from commercial piers, but that is speculation on her part since the local zoning law defining sending and receiving areas has not been drafted, much less passed.
At any rate, the existing piers with their enclosed sheds have virtually no rights to sell. The piers and platforms would have to be removed. Since they are a source of income for the Trust, that would be shooting itself in the foot. However, there are well over five hundred acres of “land under water” from the bulkhead line out eight hundred feet to the pier head line—provided there is a market for those “unused development rights.” A diagram in the Zoning Manual makes this concept clear.
The concept of salable “land under water” in NYC stems from the passing of the 1686 Donegan charter introduced by the second English governor, Thomas Donegan. It made underwater land into a form of property which could be bought and sold to provide docks and warehouses, and led to the creation of the M2-3 district to create piers where the park now sits. The Trust can thank Governor Donegan for its largess.
The four mile strip of inboard land to whose owners the Trust will turn to make deals already has millions of square feet of unused development rights permitting high rise buildings. At 59th Street, Douglas Durst is already building a 700 unit, one million square foot building designed by Bjarke Ingels Ground without purchasing development rights—it will rise like a shoe pointed toward the Hudson from a one story toe to a thirty-two story heel sloping around green gardens to the ground.
The City Planning Commission plays a crucial role in deciding how this four mile park boundary should develop—like Trump’s Riverside South or Richard Meier’s three buildings on Charles Lane? I believe the latter should be the model for Chelsea, the West Village, NOHO and SOHO, perhaps with occasional taller skinny accents at appropriate junctures.
It is time for City Planning to plan, to model their vision, locate sending and receiving sites and excite the community in the way the Friends of the High Line did at their beginning.