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Air Rights in New York City Unlock the Earning Potential...

Air Rights in New York City Unlock the Earning Potential of its Historical Landmarks

In New York City, the best way to build – is up. Building up maximizes the space of small, expensive parcels of land. For this reason, it makes sense that the rights to the space above a building, also known as air rights, are a highly coveted commodity in New York City. In general, air rights

St. Patricks Cathedral, perhaps the most famous religious structure in the city, has been a major tourist attraction for decades. Even as the surrounding area has developed, it has continued to be a staple in the urban fabric.

In New York City, the best way to build - is up. Building up maximizes the space of small, expensive parcels of land. For this reason, it makes sense that the rights to the space above a building, also known as air rights, are a highly coveted commodity in New York City. In general, air rights refer to the space above a lot, and belongs to whomever owns the land. In New York City, air rights are a type of Transferrable Development Right (TDR), and directly impact how tall a building can legally be. Using air rights in this manner unlocks the possibilities for many structures in New York, allowing developers to transcend previously established limits. For this reason air rights are in high demand.

Air rights have played an integral role in the construction of many significant structures. One of the more common examples is transit authorities selling the air rights to their train yards to construct buildings on top of the site. One of the more famous examples in New York City involves Barclays Center in Downtown Brooklyn. The arena was only possible once the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) sold the air rights to Bruce Ratner. New construction stemming from the transaction of air rights is a common occurrence in New York City. The benefits for developers tend to dominate discussion about air rights, because it has the most visible impact on architecture and urban development. What gets lost in the conversation, however, is how air rights can be beneficial to the seller.

For buildings without other sources of income, the money that comes from selling air rights can be pivotal. Perhaps the biggest potential beneficiaries of this system are owners of historic landmarks. Landmark regulations make it difficult to build new structures on designated sites, making it hard to take advantage of air rights. For this reason, it often makes sense to sell them off. This proves to be an enticing proposition for many landmark owners, as their building sits under significant amounts of sellable air. The circumstances surrounding the St. Patrick’s Cathedral exemplifies this phenomenon well, as air rights have been a major issue for the 136-year-old church.

The interior of the St. Patricks Cathedral. The monumentality is on full display upon entering, with its grand arcades and groined vaults. Even today, people from around the world come to see the church. No matter the time of year, St. Patrick's Cathedral is a popular tourist location. Countless people come to admire the religious significance, as well as the architecture of the building.

The famous cathedral sits under over a million square feet of air rights, which could easily sell for hundreds of millions of dollars. This amount could be used in a variety of ways, including funding the cathedral’s $175 million restoration, which was completed in December 2015. Currently, St. Patrick’s Cathedral spends $40 million annually for its programs and maintenance, and has a multimillion dollar deficit. Despite being a major tourist attraction in the city, the cathedral struggles just to stay open. For this reason the archdiocese of New York has been aggressively pushing for a special zoning district that would allow the sale of its air rights. It is clear that the church would greatly benefit from more inclusive air rights regulation.

Air rights may change the future development of the city, but it can also have an equally important impact on buildings of the past. As architectural highlights of the past, landmarks bring invaluable cultural capital to New York City. However, this cultural value does not always translate to financial value, making the money from air rights even more important. Air rights are so crucial not simply because they change the built landscape, but also because they offer a gateway for the buildings of the past to stay properly maintained and relevant. 

Should the sale of air rights be more flexible? Is there an area near you affected by air rights? Share your thoughts and your city's stories in the comments area below.

Credits: Images by Quinn Harding. Data linked to sources.

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Quinn graduated last May from Haverford College in Growth and Structure of Cities with a focus in architecture. His interests in the field include issues of sustainability, historic preservation, and innovative use of public and communal spaces. Curr...

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