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.
“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.