Midtown holy houses preach air right flexibility

From left: St. Patrick's Cathedral, St. Bartholomew's Church and Central Synagogue
From left: St. Patrick's Cathedral, St. Bartholomew's Church and Central Synagogue

A plan to rezone Midtown East and fuel new development in the area even has the pious licking their lips.  Three Midtown East houses of worship — St. Patrick’s Cathedral, St. Bartholomew’s Church and Central Synagogue — want to sell some 2 million square feet of air space above their landmarked buildings, a commodity that could be worth nearly $400 million, according to Crain’s.

The houses of worship are hoping that the city will grant them the same flexibility regarding air rights that it is granting itself under the rezoning plan. For one, the owners of the architectural gems argue that they are desperate for a capital injection.

“We have been given this responsibility to maintain historic structures, and yet as part of that we have not been allowed to realize the value of those structures, and that puts us in a difficult position,” Lawrence Graham, chief administrative officer of St. Bartholomew’s Church, on Park Avenue and East 51st Street, said. “We should be part of the process going forward.”

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But so far the city has indicated a desire to remain the sole seller of air rights following the rezoning — it plans to reinvest proceeds from the air rights into a fund that will pay for neighborhood improvements.

However, if religious leaders are able to gain support from a city official willing to delay the rezoning — which is seen as a component of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s legacy — then the city may become more willing to pay an indulgence.

“They make a good argument, and it’s something that I am open to considering,” Dan Garodnick, a City Councilman whose district includes portions of the area to be rezoned, said. “Beyond that, I can’t say. It’s early.” [Crain’s] —Christopher Cameron