Landmarked Religious Institutions in Midtown East Look to Change Air Rights Rules

April 6, 2015

St. Patrick’s Cathedral, via Wiki Commons

With declining memberships, it has become a common issue among New York City religious institutions that they’re land-rich but cash-poor. To solve the problem, religious leaders are turning to the sale of air rights, allowing developers to build on unused land or above the existing structure or altogether transferring the rights to an adjacent property. It’s the latter trend that’s become the center of debate with St. Patrick’s Cathedral, along with other landmarked institutions, as they’re looking to change the air rights rules to allow transfers to properties that are not directly adjacent. The Wall Street Journal takes a close look at this trend and a city plan that would allow East Midtown landmarks to sell their air rights to sites that are several blocks away.

In 1968, in the midst of public outcry over a plan by Marcel Breuer to build a huge tower over Grand Central Terminal and demolish its façade and main waiting room, the city put in place rules that regulated the transfer of air rights from city landmarks more closely than those from non landmarks. The arduous review process associated with development rights from landmarks made these real estate deals much less common. This is still true today; the Furman Center at NYU cites 361 air rights transfers between 2003 and 2011, but only two went through the landmark review process.

St. Bartholomew's Church
St. Bartholomew’s Church on Park Avenue between East 51st and East 52nd Street, via Wiki Commons

As the Journal reports: “Under current city rules, the church can sell rights to build vertically on its site on Fifth Avenue to developers who want to go higher on their lots—but only to developers on or across the street. But because St. Patrick’s is ringed by tall office buildings, including those at Rockefeller Center, there are few opportunities to sell air.” As a result, the Archdiocese of New York is working with St. Patrick’s, St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, and Central Synagogue (all designated landmarks in the Midtown East area) on a plan that would allow the institutions to sell their unused air rights to developers with properties several blocks away. This is no small request, though. St. Patrick’s alone has roughly 1.17 million square feet of available development rights, which “is enough space to erect a structure about the size of the Chrysler Building on top of the cathedral” (or roughly 46 stories) and could fetch hundreds of millions of dollars.

In the 2013 Midtown East rezoning plan under Mayor Bloomberg, the religious institutions, along with the landmarked skyscraper Lever House on Park Avenue, would have received their air rights revision, but the plan, which would have allowed Park Avenue office towers to increase in size by 20 percent, was eventually nixed. But now, the task force set up to review the new Midtown East rezoning plan, headed up by Manhattan borough president Gale Brewer and Councilman Daniel Garodnick, is looking at a new landmark development policy. The Journal notes that “preservationists support the idea of giving owners of nonprofit landmark buildings a revenue stream to help pay for maintenance At the same time, they worry the program can lead to unchecked development and the demolition of worthy older buildings if it isn’t well designed.” In the meantime, St. Patrick’s is currently undergoing a $170 million restoration.

[Via WSJ]


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