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St. Patrick's Cathedral Wants Right to Cash In on Proposed Midtown Rezoning

By Mathew Katz | September 13, 2012 8:38am

MIDTOWN — The Archdiocese of New York wants the city to let them leverage the empty space over St. Patrick's Cathedral to collect millions of dollars from developers — as part of a bid by the historic Fifth Avenue church to cash in on the proposed rezoning plan of East Midtown.

The Archdiocese is spearheading an effort to convince the city to change the rules to let landmarked buildings sell the air rights — or the right to sell any developers the ability to add height to their own projects —  over their buildings.

City rules prohibit the landmarked 1878 church — or any landmarked building — from adding any additional square footage to their existing property.

Under city rules, landmarked buildings are only allowed to sell air rights to their immediate neighbors, according to the City Planning Department. But the Archdiocese wants the ability to sell off the rights to any building within the new zoning area.

The rezoning rules would allow developers in Midtown East to build on top of existing buildings as well as to knock down buildings to erect taller ones — creating potentially billions of dollars in new construction.

However, the Archdiocese would be blocked from profiting under the proposed new rules because landmarked buildings cannot be knocked down or built on.

"There has to be some way at some point for some benefit to be given to these buildings," said David Brown, the Archdiocese' director of real estate, at a joint meeting of Community Boards 4, 5 and 6. "The landmarks shouldn't be disadvantaged by it."

The rezoning proposal, now in its infant stages, could unlock thousands of square feet of new office space in an area extending roughly from East 39th to East 57th streets between Second and Fifth avenues.

Community Board 5 estimates there are likely 30 landmarked buildings and interiors in the area, and several others with the potential to be landmarked before the new regulations go into effect. The archdiocese has several buildings in Midtown East, including St. Patrick's Cathedral at East 50th Street, and St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church on Park Avenue at East 51st Street.

According to Brown, much of the air rights sales profits would go straight back into St. Patrick's, which is in the middle of a $180 million restoration.

The City Planning Department plans to host a meeting on Sept. 27 to determine the overall scope of the new zoning regulations.

Community board members said the Archdiocese's proposal would help give the landmark buildings an incentive to support the zoning changes.

"This would give something to the landmarks," said said CB5 member Ed Klimerman. "That's how you get paid, presumably, for something they're missing out on."

Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the Archdiocese, could not say exactly how much the air rights over St. Patrick's Cathedral would be worth, but did note the cash-strapped church has long wanted to sell them.

"Up until now, we've been stymied in being able to do anything like this, which is why we were hoping to fall under this new proposal," Zwilling said.

"I don't think there's any place for us to go with our air rights, which is why we want to be a part of this plan."