Air Rights Fright

It is far from difficult to spot a housing project in New York City. They tend to stick out like massive, redbrick sore thumbs, cookie-cutter in their incongruity. But despite their stature, many of these housing projects have unused air rights because they were built in the decades before the city instituted the current Zoning Law in 1961.

The New York City Housing Authority is now looking to sell some of its 30.5 million square feet of air rights in Manhattan to help fill a $195 million budget gap. That being his backyard, Borough President Scott Stringer has called on the agency to formalize its plans in a report his office released yesterday.

“NYCHA needs new revenues to support the buildings that house thousands of residents in Manhattan and around the city,” Stringer said in a statement. “But selling off development space in hot neighborhoods without a plan and no real public review is not the answer.”

The disposition of any such air rights to new projects within or adjacent to the agency’s properties can currently be pursued as of right. But Stringer believes that because of the volume—developments equivalent to 11 Empire State Buildings or a single-story building covering Central Park from 59th Street to 102nd Street, the report points out—and public stewardship of these lands, Manhattanites deserve a say in the process.

Especially since so many of them are affected: The report notes that all but one community board has a complex in it with at least 100,000 square feet of development rights. However, four neighborhoods in particular are hardest hit, with 25.8 million square feet, or almost 85 percent, of all unused air rights in the agency’s Manhattan complexes. The neighborhoods are, from most to least developable, East Harlem, the Lower East Side, Central Harlem, and the Upper West Side.

According to the report, the housing authority had generally eschewed plans for the development of its unused air rights until 2001, though it was not until 2006 that a project entered the planning phases, for a multi-site development in Hell’s Kitchen. Though that project has advanced amicably, Stringer still hopes the agency will pursue a more comprehensive plan concerning the disposition of its air rights.

“It is clear that NYCHA intends to pursue transfer or sale of its unused development rights and expects revenue from these dispositions to meet short-term budget needs,” the report states. “But the annual plan provides little clarity as to the agency’s ultimate goal—whether to build as much affordable housing as possible, to make as much money for NYCHA as possible, or to strike some kind of balance between the two.”

To prevent future fights over such issues, Stringer wants the agency to catalogue its unused air rights, develop a detailed long-term plan for how it might dispose of such air rights, and create a site-specific planning process for any dispositions. Stringer also urged the agency to bring the community into this planning process to better assess and influence any new developments. “We owe it to ourselves, and especially to the public housing community, to look carefully before we leap,” the report concludes.

A statement from the agency was appreciative but non-committal: “We welcome the Borough President’s analysis and recognition of NYCHA’s efforts to develop a pipeline of 3,000 units under Mayor Bloomberg’s historic plan to expand affordable housing in New York City. We will review the recommendations in the report and look forward to a continuing dialogue on these important issues.”

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