WestView Letter April 2015: A City of Shells: Zoning Laws Turning New York into Shell City

A City of Shells: Zoning Laws Turning New York into Shell City

The New York Times has just completed an extraordinary expose of a little understood practice of parking undisclosed assets in high rise real estate, very high. The diagrams of occupied residences in white and shell apartments in gold uncannily resembled the piles of chips one sees at gambling casinos. What the series did not point out is that this shell game is the result of zoning laws originating with the New York City Planning Commission who now resemble bankers more than planners. The Commission has unwittingly also subverted its own attempts to reward property owners with zoning bonuses and sales of arbitrarily determined air rights by passing two conflicting laws undermining the ability of Grand Central Terminal to sell its air rights devised to save that historic structure from demolition. Its landmark designation led to the key Supreme Court decision supporting historic preservation, based partly on the transfer of unused air rights over designated historic structures. During this process we have seen buildings no longer just providing shelter or places of commerce, but abstract items of value, much like gold and other paper equities.

Barry Benepe

Mr. Benepe is a retired urban planning consultant who once prepared large scale plans for areas of Manhattan as a planner for the NYC Housing and Redevelopment Board

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