Tax Abatements Down by the Riverside

Hundred of millions of dollars were awarded unnecessarily to developers

By Sydney H. Schanberg 

Originally published in Newsday, June 13, 1986

Six years ago, when all the heavyweight builders, architects, real estate lawyers, financiers and public relations men were fighting each other for the right to develop a chunk of prime East River waterfront property known as the “Billion-Dollar Gold Coast” one of the competing lawyers, Charles Moerdler, a former city buildings commissioner, told a reporter: “We’re talking here of potentially the most meaningful dollar investment in the City of New York in many a year. That’s why there’s so much competition.”

One would not have thought with so many biggies painting to be picked by the city to develop the juicy tract, that the city had to put any sweeteners in the pot. Why offer tax incentives when the tongues are already hanging out? In fact, the same newspaper story that recorded the Moerdler comment also said of the $500-million project that “no city or state money is expected to be involved.”

Newspaper archives, it’s been noted before, are always good for a laugh. The private project will now receive tens of millions of dollars in city tax abatements.

Awarded in 1980 to a group of bidders who called their design River Walk, it is still going through the city’s permit process but is slated to go into construction late next year.

How it came to receive this major tax forgiveness is an instructive lesson in the fine-print skills of the Koch administration.

The state statute governing the tax gift is known as 421-a — short for Section 421-a of the Real Property Tax Law. It was enacted in 1971 to stimulate the building of apartments on economically unattractive sites in New York City where housing would otherwise not be built; sites defined in the statute as “vacant, predominantly vacant, or underutilized.” (The developer pays no taxes during construction and then only partial taxes for 10 years afterward.)

Over the years, the program became a giveaway. Hundreds of millions of dollars were awarded unnecessarily to developers who were building luxury projects and would have carries them out anyway, without the tax concessions. Almost all the projects were done in the better neighborhoods of Manhattan.

No one imagines in 1971 that the Trump Tower, on “underutilized” Fifth Avenue, would qualify for these tax gifts, but it got them– $40 million to $50 million worth.

These distortions of the law’s original intent led to a crescendo of protest and pressures against the Koch administration, which finally agreed, after years of foot-dragging, to put limitations of 421-a.

The mayor acknowledged that much of Manhattan had become so attractive and lucrative for developers that tax indictments were no longer needed. So he agreed that from 96th Street southward to 14th Street, and also in parts of Lower Manhattan, 421-a was dead. (He did push through certain geographic exceptions, however — such as the the Times Square redevelopment area, Union Square and the Lower East Side. The critics of 421-a had wanted more of Manhattan covered by the ban, with no exceptions, but this was the best they could negotiate.)

The next step was enactment of the restrictive language — first through enabling legislation in Albany and then in a detailed, implementing statute in the City Council. The new rules when into effect last Nov. 29; projects in the proscribed areas that had not broken ground for their foundations by that cutoff date could not receive 421-a abatements.

Which brings us to River Walk, a project that will run from 16th to 24th Streets along the East River and therefore would seem to fall inside the 96th-to-14th-Streets area of denial.

But then we are told by city officials to look closer at the council’s implementing legislation. River Walk will be built mostly on a concrete platform, supported by pilings, that will extend 500 feet into the river. And the river, if you read carefully, qualifies for 421-a goodies.

Some very clever Koch administration types inserted language that defined the limits of the ban as “the bulkhead line” on both the Hudson River and the East River. And “the bulkhead line” means the water’s edge. So anything built over the water becomes automatically eligible for 421-a.

Nothing was said publicly at the time about this loophole. There was no open discussion. The 421-a critics simply weren’t aware of it, and many of them — like me — have just learned about it.

What it comes down to is that at the very moment when the mayor was conceding that real estate tax inducements could no longer be justified in a large portion of Manhattan because it had become so desirable, he was, virtually by subterfuge, keeping the tax gifts alive for the most desirable tracts inside that portion: the waterfront.

River Walk is the first over-the-water project to benefit from this ruse. But the Koch administration has given a high priority to waterfront development, so more these tax gifts are certain to follow.

River Walk, for reasons beyond the tax abatement, is vigorously opposed by the residents of the neighborhoods around it, who say it is too huge and will overwhelm the moderate-income, low-rise community. They are asking that it be drastically reduced and reshaped.

The project consists of six acres on land and 24 acres to be constructed over water. Its structures will include five residential towers — ranging from 25 to 45 stories — with 1,888 apartments, all of them to be sold or rented at luxury rates. Also in the plans are a 245-room hotel, 2,075 parking places, and office building, retail space and two marinas.

Officials at the city’s Public Development Corp., which late last year took over responsibility for waterfront development from the Department of Ports and Terminals, say the 421-a “bulkhead” language was written before their time by they insist there will be no windfall for the builders of River Walk or any other over-the-water projects.

These officials say they will closely scrutinize the project’s financial plan before setting the final annual rent of the developer’s land-lease with the city.

What they’re suggesting is that if the 421-a tax gift raises the developer’s profits to excessive levels, they’ll raise his rent. We look forward to reading the fine print.

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