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Changes to Hudson River Park Air Rights Spur Development Hopes and Fears

By Mathew Katz | July 8, 2013 9:25am
 A bill passed in the New York State Assembly June 20, 2013 would allow the Hudson River Park to sell its unused development rights to fund much-needed Pier 40 repairs.
A bill passed in the New York State Assembly June 20, 2013 would allow the Hudson River Park to sell its unused development rights to fund much-needed Pier 40 repairs.
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DNAinfo/Andrea Swalec

CHELSEA — Changes to the rules governing Hudson River Park have unleashed a Pandora's box of hopes and fears over a likely rush of development on the already-booming far west side of Manhattan.

The changes, passed last month in Albany and currently awaiting Gov. Andrew Cuomo's signature, would allow the cash-strapped park to sell its air rights to development sites up to one block east of its borders, essentially letting developers pay the park for the right to construct taller buildings.

While the specifics of the air rights sales are still up in the air, the new rules could raise millions of dollars for the park to help repair spaces including the ailing Pier 40 — all while adding millions of square feet of new development to the west side.

Hudson River Park Trust President and CEO Madelyn Wils said the new legislation is not a "magic bullet" for the park's financial situation, but it creates an opportunity for air rights transfers should the right site become available.

"Over the past decade, almost all of the property adjacent to the park has been rezoned... This legislation allows the park to now be the beneficiary from any future rezonings allowed by the city on the few sites that still remain," Wils said in a statement.

"If some air rights currently permissible in the park can be transferred across the street, we can minimize the development that occurs in the park. Again, this will only happen through zoning with input from the community boards."

But longtime locals in Chelsea, the West Village and SoHo fear that a boom of huge buildings could take away from the character of the neighborhoods, which have traditionally been low-rise. Zoning currently limits buildings along Hudson River Park to about five to 20 stories tall, though the limits vary along the length of the park, from the Battery to 59th Street.

"Hyperdevelopment is something we're concerned about," said Lesley Doyel, co-chair of Save Chelsea, who's teamed up with other preservationists to question the move.

"Chelsea worked so hard to get views of the sky and access to the waterfront — now it looks like there's going to be a canyon of buildings, especially surrounding the High Line."

For Chelsea residents like Doyel, the fear is that a real estate "hot zone" could emerge along the far west side between West 14th Street to West 23rd Street. Developers could tear down old buildings to build newer, much larger ones, or even just build on top of existing ones, he fears.

The changes have already prompted at least one existing developer in West Chelsea to adjust its plans for a large residential development in the hopes of buying some air rights to construct a larger version of its project, according to a person in the organization who asked not to be identified because the plans were still tentative.

Faith Hope Consolo, chairman of Douglas Elliman's retail real estate group, said that she could foresee a corridor of retail development, particularly from Broadway to Pier 40 along Houston Street, to coincide with a boom in residential building.

"With sensible plans in place, the avenue bordering the park could be ripe for development, moving northward from Pier 40, which can be the attraction it deserves to be."

According to State Senator Brad Hoylman's office, there are protections to prevent overdevelopment — any changes to zoning to allow for bigger buildings would require review by the City Planning Commission and City Council under the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure.

Hoylman, who voted for the bill after being surprised with it at an early-morning senate session, will take each project that enters the ULURP process on a case-by-case basis.

But for some, that uncertainty is part of the problem.

"We just don't know how these can be used or will be used — there's been very little analysis of potential receiving sites, how many air rights there are and where they will come from or go to," said Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.

"We already feel as though we've got more than enough development going on in our neighborhood."