October 15, 2006
SINCE colonial times, the government has dutifully delivered the mail. Now the United States Postal Service has added another line of work: selling air rights to help Manhattan high-rises rise even higher.
Preservationists recently learned of an air rights sale by the post office — the fourth in the last few years — to the developer Sam Chang, who is planning to put up a 20-story building next to the large, ornate Canal Street Station post office in TriBeCa.
The sales have given the Postal Service a chance to participate, indirectly, in the soaring real estate market of the last decade. On West 42nd Street, for example, postal air rights were used to build the 60-story Orion condominium. But preservationists contend that the air rights transfers are not valid and violate federal law.
The Canal Street transaction is unusual because the privately owned parcels are so small and the post office site is so large that it appears that more than half of the size, and thus the height, of the building comes from air rights and a parking lot sold by the post office.
The transfer was disclosed in a financial filing late last month by a mortgage lender in connection with the new development. Robert A. Anderson, a spokesman for the Postal Service, said the post office received $6.2 million for air rights and the purchase of a post-office-owned parking lot.
“I am not aware of any other air rights issues outside these four sites in New York,” Mr. Anderson said. The other two involve post offices in Greenwich Village and Gramercy Park.
Community groups have filed suit to try to stop the construction of a 26-story building next to the Cooper Station in the Village. They argued that the air rights transfer was meaningless because the federal government is not bound to follow the zoning code, but their case was rejected by a state judge and they are considering an appeal.
Preservationists say the post office has an obligation to do more than sell air rights to the highest bidder. Andrew Berman, the executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, said federal law requires that each sale be reviewed for its impact on historic sites. He said the new Canal Street building would abut the Depression-era post office and also block much of the view of the AT&T Building, a 28-story tower built in 1930 and declared a landmark.
Mr. Anderson said the Postal Service was now developing plans to comply with the federal review requirements in the future. But he said the Canal Street sale, negotiated long ago, would not be reviewed.
Mr. Chang said he had bought the assembled site from another developer and planned to put up a 20-story Sheraton hotel.
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company