National News

Offered $54 Million for Air Rights, Co-op Says ‘No Thanks’

Posted June 14, 2018 8:38 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — The developers offered $54 million for air rights, in exchange for building a pair of tall towers next door, in what seemed like a deal too good to refuse. But on Thursday, the board of the Seward Park Cooperative on the Lower East Side said that the deal had failed to win approval from residents, in what some shareholders said was a symbolic message about overdevelopment.

“I’d like to think this would send a signal to the general community in favor of sensible, incremental development,” said Bill Ferns, a resident of the complex who opposed the deal. “We don’t want the character of who can live in this neighborhood to change radically.”

The vote only blocks the builders from erecting two towers taller than zoning laws permit; the developer, Ascend Group, has said it still intends to build, though at a lower height.

After 17 months of negotiations, the board of the Seward Park co-op had recommended approving the lucrative sale of 162,000 square feet of unused development rights as a way to ease the financial pressure on the four-building residential complex.

But in a vote on Tuesday, the measure failed to win the necessary approval of two-thirds of the co-op’s voters. According to results released Thursday to residents, 1,227 of a possible 1,602 shareholders participated in the voting, but only 56 percent, or 690, voted for the sale.

“We’re disappointed,” said one of the developers, Wayne Heicklen of Ascend Group. “It wasn’t what I expected.”

The Ascend Group and its partner had planned to use the air rights to build condominium towers taller than zoning allows — 22 stories and 33 stories — on two parcels it owns that are adjacent to the complex, along East Broadway. Ascend still plans to erect a 17-story building and a 20-story building there.

“We’re building,” Heicklen insisted.

He said residents may come to regret their decision to turn down $54 million as maintenance charges and assessments for repairs continue to rise, something that was already on the minds of some shareholders who favored the deal. Members of the losing faction are circulating a petition demanding that they be offered another chance to vote.

The anonymous petition blames “some very wealthy and selfish shareholders” for the rejected offer, which, it states, will lead to increased carrying charges and “no new lobbies for a long time.”

For many years, the Lower East Side appeared impervious to the gentrification sweeping many Manhattan neighborhoods. But in recent years that has changed. Some Seward Park residents said they wanted to take a stand where they could.

“That was a lot of money offered,” said Judy Prigal, a resident who said she was somewhat surprised by the results, “but keeping some quality of life won out.” Ferns said he hopes that the tension created among residents who were divided on the merits of the sale will settle down and neighbors will again be able to look each other in the eye in the elevator.

He and other residents complained about the glass towers that have sprung up throughout the once working-class Lower East Side, as well as the 80-story tower at South Street Seaport that seems to loom over the neighborhood.

Seward Park is not alone in its opposition to unchecked development. There are groups fighting oversize towers on the East Side of Manhattan and the Upper West Side, as well as fierce battles over the need for affordable housing in nearly every neighborhood.

Although the co-op board recognized that the views of some residents would have been blocked by the new buildings, it favored the air-rights deal because it would allow them to pay down the mortgage, make much-needed repairs to the 60-year-old buildings and keep the co-op’s maintenance fees low.

The board, however, had planned for either outcome. It plans to obtain a larger mortgage that will enable it to make repairs and install new elevators.