Answers needed on park air rights sales

One mystery surrounding the amendment to the Hudson River Park Act that the Legislature approved way back in June was answered Nov. 13, when Governor Cuomo finally signed the bill into law.

However, many questions still remain about the modifications to the 1998 Park Act, specifically, regarding the provision allowing the Hudson River Park’s unused development rights to be sold across the highway one block inland from the park.

For starters, no one seems to know exactly how many unused air rights the 5-mile-long park has. Madelyn Wils, the president of the Hudson River Park Trust, the park’s governing authority, is on record saying this summer that the park has about 1.6 million square feet of unused air rights potentially for sale. However, the Trust and Assemblymember Richard Gottfried — who sponsored the recent amendment along with Assemblymember Deborah Glick — now say the exact number of air rights can’t be quantified until a formal ULURP or land use application is done, presumably, sometime soon.

Also, no one seems to know where the air rights could be transferrable to. Would they have to go directly across the highway from the pier they are taken from? Or could they be stacked anywhere along the park’s length, from Chambers St. to W. 59th St.?

Most importantly, will the city or will the state oversee these air rights transfers? If it’s the city, under city zoning, a seven-month-long ULURP public review process would be required. Admittedly, many local residents scoff that ULURP has not spared the community unpopular large-scale projects, such as the Rudin residential redevelopment of the St. Vincent’s site, the N.Y.U. 2031 superblocks expansion or the Chelsea Market vertical expansion.

Yet, with a community-sensitive councilmember, ULURP can be an effective way to scale back oversized, noncontextual development and add into them community “gets” — like affordable housing, a school or a health facility.

Pier 40 is the focus of everyone’s attention right now. That’s mainly because the new amendment requires any revenue from the sale of this massive, but crumbling West Houston St. pier’s air rights be funneled back into the Pier 40 to fund sorely needed repairs. Plus, Pier 40 simply has a huge amount of airs rights for sale — around 600,000 square feet — and potentially 740,000 more if its pier shed is razed. Meanwhile, the St. John’s Center building across the highway has been a long-coveted development site, only in need of a residential zoning change.

We hear that, initially, at least, discussions among stakeholders were that a potential air rights transfer from Pier 40 to the St. John’s site would be handled under the state’s General Project Plan, or G.P.P., process. We’re told that, yes, a G.P.P. does involve an extensive public comment period. Yet, the decision on a G.P.P. is ultimately by the much-maligned mechanism of “three men in a room” — the governor and the heads of the Assembly and state Senate.

The new legislation would seem to indicate that city zoning would, in fact, govern the process — but again, we absolutely need concrete assurances.

Yes, of course, the revenue these air rights sales would be a godsend for currently cash-strapped Hudson River Park. Yet, at what cost? For years, activists and preservationists have battled to save the Lower West Side waterfront from overdevelopment. Now, will this new provision, simply override and blot out all those hard-won gains?

The hard work of figuring out next steps on this issue will fall to Mayor Bill de Blasio when he takes office next month. There will also be some new Trust board members in place.

We hear Community Board 2 will be reviewing the air rights issue in January. We’re looking forward to the board’s helping clarify this murky, but very serious, provision that has the potential to radically reshape our communities.