Air rights v. land rights

NPR covered a New York controversy a while ago surrounding new “super tall” towers like One57 just south of Central Park. At issue are the shadows skyscrapers cast on Central Park. One57 is 75 stories, and another soon to be completed will be ~90 stories. As the sun rises and sets, this results in massive shadows that stretch and creep across the park.

The history of Central Park is fascinating. It’s nearly 900 acres of public space in the midst of America’s most populous city. It wasn’t a part of the original city plan, but leaders with foresight surveyed and set aside the land so that residents and future generations would have a bit of nature left near where they would live, work, and play.

While I’m all for private markets, I’m also for architects that respect their surroundings—aesthetically in terms of its neighboring buildings and structurally in terms of the impact of its size. Most NPR commenters seem to view this debate one-dimensionally: “Are tall buildings a new thing in New York city?”, etc. But these super tall residential towers are the first of their kind adjacent to Central Park, and structures this tall are a new challenge for city governments, developers, and residents. You can see the effect of that in the NPR article’s photo. 

Another NPR commenter:

I was surprised this story didn’t mention the city’s past attempts to address this same issue. The 1916 Zoning Resolution required skyscrapers over a certain height to ascend stepwise to let light reach the street (think art deco). It was repealed or reformed or something in the 60’s I think.

Air rights, based on medieval Roman law, will need to be revisited to account for things like super-tall construction of 100+ or even 167+ floor buildings like Saudi Arabia’s Kingdom Tower. The ancient basis for air rights was that “For whoever owns the soil, it is theirs up to Heaven and down to Hell.”

Since technological architecture now lets air rights impact the land rights of our neighbors, it seems like we’re due for revisiting that Roman thinking.

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