As Is Air Right

At long last, City Council approves St. John’s Terminal–Pier 40 development

City Terrain Development East News
City Council approves St. John's Terminal-Pier 40 development. (Courtesy COOKFOX Architects)
City Council approves St. John's Terminal-Pier 40 development. (Courtesy COOKFOX Architects)

Yesterday the New York City Council approved a massive Manhattan air right transfer that allows the controversial St. John’s Terminal–Pier 40 development to move forward.

The development of St. John’s Terminal, which occupies a three-block area along the West Side Highway across from Hudson River Park, is made possible by the transfer of air rights from the park’s stewards to the developers, Westbrook Partners and the Atlas Capital Group. The firms will pay the Hudson River Park Trust $100 million for 200,000 square feet of air rights; in return, they can build five buildings to replace the aging terminal. The exchange allows the Trust, which is self-funding, to repair the pier, which hosts a parking garage, much-needed playing fields, and offices.

City Councilmember Corey Johnson, whose district includes the project area, has been negotiating the quid-pro-quo for three years. Despite weaker allowances for affordable housing, many elected officials, preservationists, and residents say they already see its benefits. Part of the deal included a bid to designate the Sullivan-Thompson Historic District (also called the South Village Historic District), a 40-block zone in Soho bounded by five other lower Manhattan historic districts. The Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) approved the district two days before the City Council’s vote.

At that public hearing prior to the LPC’s vote, preservationists and South Village citizens testified to the “spirit of the neighborhood”: “safe and clean,” “neighbors know each other,” and its “wonderful lifestyle and cityscape.” Besides protecting the social and cultural history of the neighborhood, the designation of the 160-building area will prevent outsize construction within its mostly low-rise boundaries. Preservation advocacy group the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) spearheaded the decade-plus campaign to landmark a downtown area that includes over 1,250 structures.

The two-million-square-foot St. John’s project includes 500 units (30 percent of the total) of housing that will be offered to qualifying households at a range of below-market rates, but the rates are not as low they should be under current law. Typically, projects like St. John’s Terminal that benefit from upzonings must comply with the city’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program, which says at least 30 percent of a development’s units must go to households making 80 percent of the area median income. This time, though, Johnson, Borough President Gale Brewer, and the community board okayed the upzoning because of the millions going to park upgrades. On Thursday, two council members voted no on the plan, with one abstention, to protest its lowered affordability requirements.

Despite the size and ambition of the approved development, the community bargained for provisions that try to keep its character. The deal includes a restriction on future air rights transfers from Hudson River Park within Community Board 2, as well as a ban on big box (most stores over 10,000 square feet) and destination retail to prevent an odious amount of traffic.

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