Follow-up: An Air Rights Hearing About The NYU "Mega-Dorm"

BY KRISTEN LOMBARDI


Except for its facade, St. Ann’s Church has already been torn down.
photo: Holly Northrop/hnorthrop.com

We will fight for our neighborhood—and the City of New York should, too!

That pretty much sums up the consensus among the two dozen or so East Village residents and preservationists who have turned out, once again, to voice their opposition to the 26-story New York University dormitory on East 12th Street. Construction crews have been working all day, nearly every day, at the site of the former St. Ann's Church for the past eight months, laying a foundation, erecting the first of many floors. But neighbors and other critics haven't given up their fight to stop what they have dubbed the NYU “mega-dorm” just yet.

This time, their venue was a hearing before the city's Board of Standards and Appeals, which is currently considering an appeal in order to rescind the dorm building permits. And this time, they were calling into question the way this hulking, 260-foot-tall structure wound up being so damn tall in the first place—i.e., the transfer of air rights.

The university's Brooklyn developer, Hudson Companies, has bought additional air rights for development over the Peter Cooper Station Post Office, on East 11th Street, from the United States Postal Service. The transfer of those air rights allows Hudson to erect a far larger building—with another 61,000 square feet, by neighbors' calculation an extra 65 percent of room—than the developer otherwise could. But that transfer has also come under fire from critics, who claim the sale was improper and possibly illegal because it represents a murky merger between a private developer and a public agency, one that doesn’t fall under any New York City zoning regulations.

At the BSA hearing earlier today, there was plenty of arcane testimony about that merger from both sides of the NYU dorm battle. There were comments from the attorneys representing Hudson and the Post Office, who basically noted that air-rights transfers from neighboring properties are legal under the city's zoning regulations. In short, in the words of one of the lawyers, “There is no merit whatsoever to the claims." There were comments from the city's Buildings Department, too, which issued the building permits, and which is pretty much standing by that action.

Neighbors, meanwhile, had their own lawyer to argue before the board. “This is about your jurisdiction,” Kevin Finnegan, the neighbors' attorney, told the BSA members. He pointed out that the Post Office is a federal agency, not subject to the city’s zoning laws. “You do not have jurisdiction over the Post Office,” he said. “But if the city is going to have zoning regulations, it needs to enforce them. Why give permission to a merger over which you will have no control?”

Whatever the merit of these legal arguments, the neighbors in the audience—all donning black stickers with the words “Air Rights Are Wrong”—weren't about to let the board members forget their civic duty. If the BSA doesn't reject the transfer of the air rights and thus halt the dorm project, they reminded the members, then the Post Office, NYU, and Hudson would all profit, while they would end up with no recourse and no ability to stop yet another mega-dorm from emerging on the East Village horizon.

“Where do we go when we see an injustice being done?” asked one elderly resident decorated with “Impeach Bush” stickers. “We go to our city agencies. And every one of them bends the law in favor of developers. . . . I hope you'll do what you can to stop the transfer of these air rights and to save this community.”

Another East Villager put the sentiment more succinctly: “The closest entity for people on the ground is the city. Please don’t turn over the city's power to a private entity.”

Board members, silent with blank expressions, set a date for a final decision—June 12. In other words, stay tuned.

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