February 21, 2003     
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ir is not free any more in New York City—at least, not the air above your roof. In the scramble to find space within the limited confines of Manhattan, building owners are profiting by selling the empty airspace above their structures.

The law calls it selling air rights, the difference between the actual size of a building and the maximum size allowed by existing zoning regulations. If developers want to build higher than their zoning permits, buying air rights from another building is often an option. If a store is only 70 feet high in a neighborhood that allows 100-foot buildings, a developer can buy the unused 30-foot airspace above the church and construct a 130-foot building nearby. It's a legal loophole that allows developers to build higher than zoning regulations would otherwise permit.

PHOTO: Jessica Belasco

The residential World Trump Tower reaches 861 feet in the sky.

That's how billionaire Donald Trump was able to build his controversial World Trump Tower at First Avenue and 47th Street. At 90 stories and 861 feet, Trump's building is one of the tallest buildings in the city and the tallest residential structure in the world.

One of the buildings which sold its rights to Trump was the Holy Family Catholic church on East 47th Street. The church received $10 million for space they weren't planning to use.

Places of worship are frequently the establishments to sell their air rights because such buildings are traditionally low rise. Many Manhattan parishes have sold air rights in recent years to clear debts or repair their existing facilities.

St. Teresa's Church in the Lower East Side, for example, paid for the restoration of its building in 1998 by selling off air rights over the church for $2.1 million. A real estate developer used the space to build an apartment building on a parking lot adjacent to the church at the corner of East Broadway and Rutgers Street.

Trump's efforts to build his behemoth caused resistance among his neighbors in the area near the U.N. building. Upper-crust East Siders such as journalist Walter Cronkite and oil magnate David Koch complained that the building would dwarf the U.N. building, marring the skyline. Trump said they only wanted to protect the views from their windows.

The Coalition for Responsible Development sued the city to prevent Trump from erecting the $361 million building, but the mogul received permission from the city and a state court to transfer air rights from other buildings, including some of his own properties.

ritics of selling air rights say that allowing such development mars the character of their neighborhoods. For example, Hell's Kitchen, the area between between 34th and 59th Streets from Eighth Avenue to the Hudson River, has recently become a hot spot for new high-rise luxury apartment buildings. The formerly run-down neighborhood of low-rise tenements and low-rent businesses now sports several tall, sleek buildings from 41st to 43rd Streets. Some residents complain that the new buildings will homogenize their quirky neighborhood. Developers assert that the notoriously squalid neighborhood needs the help.

Even the city government is getting in on the deal, as Mayor Michael Bloomberg consideris selling air rights above public buildings such as schools and firehouses to close the budget gap. The Bloomberg administration plans on funding the 7-train extension entirely through the sale of air rights, according to U.S. Representative Carol Maloney.

With real estate at such a high premium in Manhattan, more building owners may be selling their air rights for what can be considered pure profit. As the city continues to grow and change, what's above a roof is becoming just as valuable as what's underneath.