Bowery Boogie

Whose Air Rights is Seward Park Selling? [OP-ED]

The following editorial was written by CUNY Sociology Professor and Seward Park Co-op resident Barbara Katz Rothman. The Seward Park Co-op board votes on the controversial Bialystoker air rights sale June 12.

I am an academic, a CUNY Professor, a totally wonderful, privileged life.  I work from home a lot – when I lived in Brooklyn, in one of those old houses built when the Brooklyn bridge went up, I took as my office a second-story bedroom with four windows, one East, three north.  I mostly saw trees, neighboring houses, some sky. I wanted to live in Manhattan, though; a lifetime dream. Less space but an elevator ride away from theater, music, museums, the urban life of the streets.  And now I am here.

My apartment is in Seward Park.  My office is the enclosed balcony.  And yes, it does overlook the Bialystoker Nursing Home that is in dispute.  We face an air rights sale, and it has sown some pretty ugly discussion.  Because I think we shouldn’t sell these air rights, I am told that I am resistant to change, not accepting of the world we live in, too rich to care, and some other uglier things.

It warms me that when those of us who have joined together in opposition to this sale meet, we do it in the apartment of a couple of the most active organizers – and it’s on the other side of the building, with Bialystoker nowhere to be seen.  Some of us are more directly affected, some of us not. We are united in our opposition to this sale.

Why?  For one thing, we think that increasing neighborhood density any further is not a great plan.  When people aren’t fighting about air rights, they seem to be complaining mostly about traffic.  I live on Grand and Clinton, believe me, I get the problem with the traffic. If low-income housing were going up, the pressure would be felt mostly on the subway – and while subway repairs and expansions are expensive, they are invaluable, make New York what it is, and I’m okay with more subway use.  This is, however, rich people’s housing that is being put up – I don’t think they’ll be on the subways so much as jockeying for more parking spaces and –even more likely and more problematic – using Uber and Lyft rides, with more and more cars hovering in the neighborhood.  That is partly a problem of space – all those cars, that many more potential injuries — but also a problem of environmental damage. There’s the noise: that many more drivers honking in frustration. But what worries me the most is that the quality of the air in the neighborhood will suffer. I’m too old to worry about that for my own health, but we have kids here, breathing this air as they grow.   Oh yeah, right … it’s “air rights” we are selling.

Some of our apartments will lose every bit of light and air, will look out pretty much entirely on the new buildings.  Those are the smaller apartments, studios or one bedrooms without differently facing windows. Some of us feel that our particular apartments are going to go down in value.  We’ve been told that more rich people coming in raises the prices of our apartments generally – and I am sure that is true. But I also remember standing at an apartment window, an unrenovated, messy apartment just like the one I finally bought, but that one had a grand sweeping view, bridges and the river and sky, sky, sky.  I so wanted it. The one I bought, what I could afford, was nearly $100,000 less. So yes, for some of us this will actually cost us money, decrease the value of our homes.

But the buildings in which we live are getting old, elevators need repair, there are expenses.  These buildings were, of course, originally built as affordable housing, and only became private co-ops recently – and I am very aware of how much I benefit from America’s rising inequality.  If someone was proposing low-income housing and I was objecting, that would be a hard case. But it’s more upper crust housing, richer probably than most of us in Seward Park now. Some of us are “original tenants,” though that cohort is dying out (I bought my apartment from the estate of one); some the children or other heirs of original tenants. Some of us, for a host of reasons, can barely afford to live here, have a hard time month after month meeting our expenses, and the thought of a maintenance assessment of a hundred dollars a month to meet an urgent expense is terrifying.

The sale amount we were given, after good hard negotiating by our Board, I am sure, was roughly equivalent to one full year of our income.  It wouldn’t save us from maintenance increases over the long haul, but of course it would help. It was a significant sum.

But apparently not enough to convince all of us.  At a big air rights informational meeting, a lot of people spoke against the sale – for a host of reasons: people who worried about air quality; those who were concerned about losing the privacy of our park space to the newcomers; a father who felt he couldn’t justify to his children being in cahoots with the real estate industry; and yes of course, some of us who are personally affected.

“Lawn signs” making the rounds at Seward Park Co-op

The upshot of the meeting was that the Ascend Group (developer) made a new offer.  And this is what got me really angry.

The offer was an additional $5 million, with the proviso that it be used ONLY to give a four month “holiday” on maintenance payments.  If you are even a bit hesitant about voting to turn down money for general things like someday-repairs, and incremental maintenances increases over the next decade – well, thousands of actual right-now dollars might well change your mind.  And it’s working. They call it an “incentive.”

So it’s not technically a “bribe” because even those of us who vote against will be eligible for the money.  But it clearly was aimed at individual voters, not at the good of the co-op as a community. It very directly put us in conflict with each other.

Early on, at one of the first meetings about the air rights sale, when some suggested that those who were directly losing light and air, whose apartments were going to suffer an immediate loss of quality of life, including a loss of property value, be reimbursed in some way, we were – rightly I thought – reminded that we are a community, cooperators, in it together.

So, how can we justify a maintenance-linked payoff?  Those most affected, people whose only window has now completely lost access to air and light, our cooperators in studios and one-bedrooms directly against the space, will be paid off at perhaps $2,000; and those in 3 bedrooms or even larger break-through apartments totally unaffected, who can’t even see the new building from any of their windows, will be paid off at double, triple that amount.

The rich get richer, Trump comes home?  Too close to home for me.