Changes To NYC Air-Rights Policy Are On The Horizon

By | October 17, 2016

Photo: Air Rights New York

The de Blasio administration is considering changes to NYC air-rights policy!

Summary: Two changes that are currently under consideration… 

  1. ‘The first would involve private transactions, which allow developers to buy unused square footage from owners on the same block…Community groups have criticized the process as being too opaque, and have suggested that the city increase transparency and alert the public when a skyscraper is in the works.’
  2. ‘The second area of discussion concerns landmarked buildings. Religious organizations, nonprofits and developers support relaxing the rules for such properties.’

For readers who may be unfamiliar with the concept of air-rights, this is a basic definition…

‘New York City air rights – formally, Transferable Development Rights, or TDRs – originated with the 1961 revamping of the city’s zoning laws. In essence, if a building adjacent to a construction site is lower than neighborhood zoning laws allow, the developer can acquire the building’s unused air space, add it to his or her project, and erect a taller building. Since the upper floors of a building fetch higher prices, developers consider height to be a prime asset…’ (Source)

In a July 2014 article here NYC air-rights were described under the headline, ‘Everything you ever wanted to know about NYC air-rights*! (Interactive Map)‘ and the sub-title ‘*But may have been too far in the shadow of a huge residential skyscraper to know to ask!’.

Now the de Blasio administration is considering changes to NYC’s air-rights policy that would affect the tens of millions of square feet of unused air-rights that currently exist.

From an article at Crain’s New York written by Joe Anuta, ‘De Blasio administration considers major changes to air-rights policy‘…

The city is looking into changing the way property owners across the five boroughs buy and sell unused air rights.

Tens of millions of square feet of unused development rights currently exist in the city, and the Department of City Planning recently sent out a survey to community groups and land-use lawyers asking what they would like to see change about long-standing policies. The air rights, which have been used to assemble tall luxury towers, tend to be trapped above landmarked properties, whose owners simply can’t find a qualified buyer.

City officials who met with stakeholders Sept. 30 to discuss some of the results said the de Blasio administration plans to release some policy recommendations in the near future, according to a source who attended the meeting. Exactly what the city has in mind is unclear.

A spokeswoman for the planning department indicated the current effort is a follow-up to a 2015 conference, “Trading High in the Sky,” where the city’s planning director, Carl Weisbrod, said the city was looking to “begin a period of analysis and stakeholder engagement and start to reconsider our current policy and mechanisms for air rights.”

If the city decides to adopt any reforms, they likely would fall into two broad areas that were discussed at the meeting. The first would involve private transactions, which allow developers to buy unused square footage from owners on the same block. Developers including Gary Barnett have conducted such deals to construct a series of skyscrapers near the southern edge of Central Park.

Community groups have criticized the process as being too opaque, and have suggested that the city increase transparency and alert the public when a skyscraper is in the works. Developers likely would oppose any changes, and it is unclear what shifts the planning department could make, because the transactions involve a contract between private parties—which can be tough to regulate.

The second area of discussion concerned landmarked buildings. Religious organizations, nonprofits and developers support relaxing the rules for such properties. Landmark owners often have the right to build much bigger structures but can’t because of the building’s protected status. The current rule allows those owners to sell their unused development rights to another property owner on the same block or across the street, but most have had trouble finding buyers and getting through the red tape involved in such a deal.

Several areas of the city that have already been altered by the planning department could serve as a citywide model. In the theater district, for example, theater owners are allowed to sell air rights to other property owners across the region. The de Blasio administration is pursuing a similar effort to free up air-rights transfers as part of its midtown east rezoning of 78 blocks surrounding Grand Central Terminal.

There is concern, however, about how air rights should be used. Rights “are relatively easy to send into the air, but as we all know,” it is “a lot more difficult to figure out where they should land,” Weisbrod said at the conference last year.

A Survey of Transferable Development Rights Mechanisms in New York City Research by crainsnewyork on Scribd

Source: Crain’s New York

Michael Haltman is President of Hallmark Abstract Service in New York and a Director of Heroes To Heroes Foundation.

He can be reached at mhaltman@hallmarkabstractllc.com or at 516.741.4723.

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