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The Problem with Air Rights

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Strolling down a city block, you wouldn’t think twice about the price tag empty space can command. But in New York City, vertical real estate space is the cash cow for developers looking to build higher and higher on the backs of our neighborhoods. The transfer of air rights has been slowly altering the city skyline for decades, and for now we’re only going to see more of the same.

Buying empty space

Air rights refer to the coveted empty space above buildings, and for the past fifty-six years New York City has developed a system for exchanging these rights between buildings. The city originally conceived of air rights to prevent building congestion and contain new development, hoping to keep construction to already under-built streets. But even a cursory look at New York shatters this idea. A hundred years ago, city planners probably couldn’t conceive of a 90-story building.

air rights

East Side Overdevelopment Forum 2017

I am constantly shocked when I visit a neighborhood I haven’t seen for months to find it totally unrecognizable.” Judith Pearlman wrote in a letter to the editor of this site. “Development has happened at such a truly inhuman scale,” she lamented.  Building higher allows developers to charge top dollar for their units, and there are always those willing to pay for better views and better light – at least for them.

Air and profits

Developers have a long history of exploiting air rights to maximize profits. Consider the history behind the notorious tower at 432 Park Avenue. The scheme to buy air rights for the site began in 2004, and it took only two years for the developer to acquire an additional 115,000 square feet. Developers finally finished the building in 2015, and it claimed the mantle of tallest residential building no one asked for.

Unlike pictures at an exhibition, we cannot take these buildings down. They are up for a lifetime.”

air rights

432 Park Avenue

In his old-life, Donald J. Trump used the same tricks.  He built Trump World Tower, the 72-story black glass tower at 845 United Nations Plaza, by grabbing air rights from at least seven low-rise properties. He poured all of this into his megatower and maxed out the block’s height density, creating what was at the time the tallest residential tower.

Trading air rights is more prevalent than it has ever been, and is behind much of the development plaguing the city. But New Yorkers are still willing to fight an uphill battle to preserve their neighborhoods.

Fighting back

The Upper East Side has the highest measurable density as a residential neighborhood. It is no wonder that community groups are fighting back against plans for more unwanted megatowers. “Hills and valleys are fine, Mount Everest is not,” said a representative from Community Board 8. She was speaking at the East Side’s Overdevelopment Forum back in June. The forum brought together community members with preservationists, public officials, and urban planners on the other side of this fight.

“Billionaires cannot buy buildings and leave the rest of us in shadow,” said Councilman Ben Kallos, who hosted the forum. Populist ring aside, Kallos paints a spot-on picture of what is at stake. Development issues are about things you can touch and breathe and see. Losing the fight against overdevelopment means losing generations of what makes a neighborhood unique. “This isn’t about zoning,” said Lisa D’Mercurio from the East River 50s Alliance. “This is where we live.”

Air and light

Transferable air rights, and new building technologies have paved the way for megatowers that would have been inconceivable a half century ago. Before 1916, air and light were not inalienable rights for all New Yorkers. And even though zoning has protected these rights since then, the drive of development has outpaced the law. As Councilman Mark Levine once said, today’s loopholes “effectively render previous zoning laws impotent.” 


air rights development

Speaker at the Overdevelopment Forum

Air rights are not even the only tool in the developer arsenal. Today’s megatowers have floors of empty space within the building, known as stilts, which raise the building height to raise the property value.“We cannot accept the loopholes used by developers,” said Rachel Levy, Executive Director at Friends of the Upper East Side. But the city does, and it is sobering to realize that most of the development in our city is legal. 



Hills and valleys are fine. Mt. Everest is not”

“Unlike pictures at an exhibition, we cannot take these buildings down,” said Elinor Fine, another New Yorker at the forum. “They are up for a lifetime.” That’s why we should pay attention. Air and light beyond question are worth fighting for. Once that’s gone, it can’t come back.

John Aurelio
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