Preservation Issues

City Intends to Limit Air Rights Transfer Fee on Landmarks in Midtown East

Preservationists and Midtown East religious institutions welcomed news that the City intends to limit the fee charged to Midtown East landmarked buildings to 20% of the income from air rights transfers, in return for allowing transfers over the broader area.

Air rights refer to empty space above a property that is not built as tall as the zoning allows.

Initial suggestions of the transfer fee included a range up to a much higher percentage. The Conservancy joined The Archdiocese of New York and other groups in arguing for the lowest possible amount. In a joint statement, the Conservancy and Archdiocese said the fees should not “undermine the intent of the transfer provision,” which is meant to assist in maintaining landmark buildings.

The City says it intends to use money generated by the transfer fees for “public realm improvements.”

Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development, Alicia Glen disclosed the proposed fee in an interview on November 22. The 20% is within the range recommended by a steering committee headed by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Councilmember Dan Garodnick. The Conservancy served on the steering committee.

The City has allowed individual landmarked buildings to transfer air rights next door or across the street since it established air rights in 1961. The proceeds were to be used to maintain the landmark. The City created a Grand Central subdistrict to allow the Terminal a wider area to sell air rights, following a challenge by the then Terminal owner that resulted in the Supreme Court upholding the City’s landmarks legislation. Midtown East landmarks that sell air rights will be required to use the funds for restoration and maintenance.

Preservationists were concerned that the Midtown East proposal allows sites over transit hubs to build larger buildings in return for transit improvements—as happened at the site of One Vanderbilt—without buying landmark air rights. The proposal now calls for some purchase of landmark air rights even if transit improvements are made.

The air rights proposal will be part of a zoning proposal for Midtown East by the Department of City Planning. The agency plans to release the full proposal by the end of the year, starting a public approval process culminating in a City Council vote.