Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
The Municipal Art Society has created a resource to alert residents to neighborhood building plans they'd otherwise never get to weigh in on.
The formula is simple enough: First, determine the floor-area ratio (FAR), that is, the total building floor area permitted on a lot. Then, multiply that FAR by the square footage of the lot. Then, factor in any applicable transferable development rights (TDRs), meaning unused air rights conferred from another development. Add these figures up, and what you get is change.
The Municipal Art Society of New York has developed a new tool that shows where development could bring the most change across the city's five boroughs. This resource is a continuation of the group's "Accidental Skyline" initiative, an effort to curb the "as-of-right" development (which allows developers to bypass some regulatory hurdles) that has resulted in some of New York's tallest and skinniest new skyscrapers.
This new interactive map may be the best new tool in the NIMBY toolbox. Borough by borough, parcel by parcel, it shows where New York's available FAR is located. Available FAR indicates available air rights: The available FAR is the maximum FAR minus the built FAR. Splotches of red on the map indicate where there are air rights available beyond what's built out on that lot.
Delicious, delicious air rights: Developers gobble those up through zoning lot mergers. They can buy unused TDRs (air rights) from adjacent landmark buildings, for example, and build higher than they otherwise might, and with less bureaucratic oversight. So the Accidental Skyline tool is essentially a heat map for where development could come. (It also shows lots that are built out to their maximum FAR—as well as parks, historic districts, and subway lines—based on map layers that users can toggle.)
Why isn't this tool also a developer's best friend? It might very well be. While the goal of the Municipal Art Society is to give to residents the same access to the information that developers already have, there's plenty that a developer could learn here.
While it doesn't take an interactive map to know that there are plenty of unused lots in Queens Plaza in Long Island City, it may not be clear—to residents or developers alike—just what the scope of change there could be. There's 2 Gotham Center, for example, a 1.2 million-square-foot development planned to rise near the Gotham Center office building. That development may house an astonishing 1,600 residential units when it is completed.
The Accidental Skyline tool shows exactly what's nearby now, and what could be there one day.
The real goal of the Municipal Art Society is to protect parks from towering shadows and other encroachments. The group would also like to implement a system whereby community boards and elected officials are notified whenever zoning lot mergers are proceeding—an effort to bring more transparency to the process.