air rights Photo: Jade Palmer/Flickr

When most people hear the term “air rights,” their mind might wander to the campy 2010 Cher/Christina Aguilera vehicle “Burlesque.” In the film, a plucky dancer saves a landmark club by convincing a nearby developer to purchase the “air rights” above the club, guaranteeing beautiful views for future upper-floor residents.

In the real world, the concept of air rights is a little more complicated. In New York City, air rights were formerly known as Transferable Development Rights. The concept developed through a 1961 revamping of city zoning laws. Depending on density/height allowed for a given zoning lot, buildings may transfer “unused height” to a neighboring building.

Here are five things you might not know about air rights:

In NYC, air rights may only be sold to buildings on or across the street.

St. Patrick’s Cathedral is currently surrounded by tall buildings, including 30 Rock — meaning under current rules, there are few opportunities to sell its air rights. In partnership with Central Synagogue and St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, it is working to change the rules to be able to sell unused air rights to developers who aren’t adjacent and could even be many blocks away.

Air rights deals can come coupled with physical development.

Earlier this month, the Union Theological Seminary in Morningside Heights revealed it’s considering a deal for a “beautiful, slender” on-campus condominium development. This is in conjunction with the sale of 350,000 square feet of air right (also referred to as development rights). The plan was met with resistance from current students

There are a lot of air rights for sale in NYC.

Property Shark offers an interactive map showing available air rights in New York City. Hundreds of thousands of square feet are currently available for purchase, including a number of parcels above 250,000 square feet.

The price for air rights is rising.

In 2014, the Wall Street Journal reported that in the previous one-year period, the price for air rights rose 47 percent, from $207 per square foot to $305. A decade ago, that price was just above $150 per square foot. In one incredible outlier deal last year, Vornado Realty Trust paid $3,868 a square foot for just under 4,000 square feet of air rights, benefitting 220 Central Park South.

Residents usually don’t know when nearby air rights deals happen.

The Municipal Art Society of New York’s “Accidental Skyline” initiative notes that “local officials and Community Boards are not notified when developers assemble air rights.” They advocate for new regulations “requiring public review for zoning lot mergers above a certain threshold.” There is precedent for notifications and a review period. Certain air rights transfers in the Theater District already require approval by the City Planning Commission.

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