A park bill out of thin air

Everyone, or almost everyone, was taken off guard two weeks ago, when the State Legislature approved a series of major changes to the 1998 Hudson River Park Act.

The most significant of these allows the park to sell its unused air rights for development one block inland.

According to the Hudson River Park Trust, the park — on its commercial piers — has about 1.6 million square feet of unused air rights. The Empire State Building has 2.77 million square feet of floor area, and the Trump Soho condo-hotel 300,000 square feet. So the park’s air rights equal more than half an Empire State Building, or more than five Trump Soho’s. In short, 1.6 million square feet is a whole lot of air rights.

What’s good about this is that any air rights sold from the park are, by definition, no longer in the park — meaning this limits large-scale development in the park. It could even happen that part of Pier 40’s pier shed could be razed and those now newly unused air rights then sold across the highway — thus, opening up the West Houston St. pier to views of the river.

Moving air rights out of the park is definitely a good thing. But what will it mean for the surrounding neighborhoods? How much of the park’s air rights will be able to be stacked at any one site? Will there be designated sites? Will Pier 40’s air rights have to transfer directly across the highway to the St. John’s Building, or can — and should — they go elsewhere?

No one seems to have any clear answers yet. Noreen Doyle, the Trust’s vice president, explained that the air rights transfers will all be done according to city zoning, and that it will likely be at least two years from now before anyone can actually start buying and using the park’s air rights. She said any project involving the transferred air rights would undergo the standard environmental reviews, meaning they would be subject to the usual level of scrutiny.

“The city’s going to have to figure out with us how this will work,” she said.

That there has been no comprehensive study of all of this to date is concerning.

The way the bill’s language is crafted, Pier 40 — by which we also mean the youth leagues and other athletes that use it — is the big winner. Any proceeds from sale of the 15-acre pier’s copious air rights must go back into repair of its dilapidated infrastructure.

The secrecy with which the bill was passed was also troubling. The Trust maintains the air rights idea was periodically mentioned at community board meetings and in the media in the past year, but that’s different than notifying the community that there is definitely a pending bill and that it’s moving full-steam ahead. Public hearings would have allayed people’s concerns and also, no doubt, helped strategize on what to do with all these air rights and where to put them and what the impact will be.

“No legislation would happen overall in New York State if everything required a public hearing,” Doyle responded. Sorry, but we just don’t buy that. The public should have been more involved on such an important change.

Allowing air rights has had another consequence: Douglas Durst, former chairperson of the Friends of Hudson River Park who has been spearheading the plan for a Hudson River Park Neighborhood Improvement District, has pulled his support from the NID effort. As one NID supporter, A.J. Pietrantone, told us, “Until development [from the air rights] is quantified, you can’t ask people to pay into a NID.”

The NID special-tax district was already on the ropes. Now, we’re told, it’s on hold, and could be shelved.

The park desperately needs funds to complete and maintain it. Selling air rights certainly has the potential to be part of a good solution, but good ideas can withstand some sunlight. In fact, they often get better when they’re allowed to grow  out in the open.