Divine Profits Churches, Developers, and Air Rights

It’s no secret—in fact, it’s been a problem for years: residential developers in Manhattan and other hot areas like Downtown Brooklyn are running out of space.

Various solutions have been applied to the space issue over the years. When the tenements in Lower Manhattan became too crowded to bear and the invention of the elevator enabled architects to design upward, the city went vertical in addition to spreading outward. In the 1970s and 80s, the solution was to convert old industrial buildings into residential and studio space for artists—a trend that continues to this day. Another, even more modern idea has been to purchase “air rights” from existing buildings in order to build ever upward in historically low-rise neighborhoods. As it turns out, among the parties who are most interested in selling their air rights are religious institutions.

Air What?

What are air rights—or development rights, as they’re also known? In a particular zoning district, each piece of property is allowed to build up to a certain height. Various areas around the city have different allowable building heights.

According to Carl Doebley of DPK&A Architects based in Manhattan and Philadelphia, “air rights and air right transfers become important when, for instance, a developer who owns a property zoned for 10 stories, say, believes he can get more value out of his property.”

Through an air rights transfer, that developer can then purchase the air rights—the right to build to a certain height—from a property next to or across from his. He can then add the additional height represented by those air rights to the height he would normally be allowed, and thus build a much taller building.

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