St. Bart’s Air Rights Fuel JPMorgan Megatower

The 52-story building at 270 Park Ave., owned by JPMorgan Chase. | Photo by Paul Schindler

BY SYDNEY PEREIRA | JPMorgan Chase & Co. is expected to buy 50,000 square feet of development air rights from Midtown’s St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church — with the option to purchase another 505,000 square feet. The deal comes several months after the company announced it would be demolishing its 52-story building at 270 Park Ave. and replacing it with one projected to rise some 75 stories.

“This agreement supports our strong commitment to long-term mission and ministry by helping fund the preservation and maintenance of our extraordinary church home,” the Right Reverend Dean E. Wolfe said in a public statement to the parish, whose home is a landmarked Byzantine Revival structure built in 1917. “It is important to remember that proceeds from these transactions will not be sufficient for all repairs and restorations needed, nor can they be used to fund parish programs and ministries, which continue to rely on your generous stewardship giving.”

In March, the New York Times reported that Grand Central, another landmarked building, was selling 680,000 square feet of air rights to JPMorgan. The additional air rights from St. Bart’s, and possibly a handful of other religious institutions as reported by the Times, are expected to secure enough development rights to build a 1,200-foot-tall skyscraper. The Times reported the building could cost $4 billion.

Under the terms of the St. Bart’s deal, JPMorgan will spend a total of $20.7 million, which includes $15.6 million for the 50,000 square feet of air rights, $3 million for the option to purchase the 505,000 square feet of additional air rights, and $2 million in closing costs, according to court records.

Twenty percent of JPMorgan’s outlay, or $3.1 million, will go into a “public realm infrastructure fund,” which is required under the Greater East Midtown rezoning. The fund is used to improve public infrastructure in the neighborhood to mitigate the impacts of more people and traffic in the area. The rezoning passed last year altered how development rights could be transferred, allowing for taller buildings while also bolstering the preservation of landmarked buildings permitted to sell their air rights in a stretch covering much of the area from 39th to 57th Sts. between Second and Fifth Aves.

JPMorgan declined to comment for this article, but a source with knowledge of the deal said it’s unlikely the extra 505,000 square feet from St. Bart’s will be purchased. “I think it will be a bit of a longshot that they will end up getting purchased,” that source said.

The source added that the options are being held in reserve in case other planned air rights purchases fall through, explaining that buyers “spread the love in the neighborhood.”

The bank has until Feb. 28, 2019 to make a decision on exercising its option on the additional St. Bart’s air rights.

JPMorgan’s new tower will house around 15,000 employees, roughly four times the number it currently holds, according to the company’s February announcement. Construction is expected to begin next year, pending approvals, and will take around five years to complete.

The building at 270 Park Ave., between E. 47th and 48th Sts. — known originally as the Union Carbide building — wasn’t thought to be in danger by preservationists during the discussions about landmarked buildings and East Midtown’s rezoning. In February, when the bank announced it would demolish the building, preservation groups were shocked.

“We were caught flat-footed,” said Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council (HDC), adding that it was “truly an error in judgment” on the part of the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) to omit the building from a list of landmark designations in 2016.

St. Bartholomew’s Church, on Park Ave., is selling air rights to JPMorgan Chase so the bank can replace its building at 270 Park Ave. with a 1,200-foot tower. | Photo by Michael Shirey

The post-war period of mid-century Corporate Modernism may not be some people’s cup of tea, he added, but it set the architectural tone for East Midtown some six decades ago. The building embodied, Bankoff said, New York’s status as the “juggernaut” of American financial, economic, and cultural power in the post-World War II years.

The New York Landmarks Conservancy echoed that sentiment. “We think it’s a great building, and we’re sorry the LPC didn’t agree with us,” said Peg Breen, president of the Conservancy.

The Conservancy, the HDC, and the Municipal Art Society requested that the Union Carbide building be landmarked in November 2013, along with 15 others in East Midtown. Though eight of their recommendations were landmarked, Union Carbide was not.

In a letter earlier this year to the former LPC Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan, Breen noted that even the Draft Environmental Impact Statement in 2013 for the rezoning included the Union Carbide as “one of the City’s great modern buildings” that “marked the end of that short-lived but graceful clean-cut era as it was followed by many vastly inferior imitators.”

The Lever House, the Seagram Building, and Union Carbide make an important trio representative of this period in architecture, Breen said.

JPMorgan’s air rights purchases and plans for a new tower are the first of many such projects expected in East Midtown in the wake of last year’s rezoning of the district. Although this zoning district has different requirements than typical for transferring air rights, similar deals are popping up across the city allowing developers to build taller — in many cases, megatowers criticized by some community groups as overdevelopment.

The neighborhood’s city councilmember, Keith Powers, while noting he will examine the air rights transfer in detail, said the new building is an investment in the area’s future. “The JPMorgan proposal is the result of the East Midtown reszoning — a large employer is investing in New York City based on the ability to grow in Midtown,” he said in an email. “It will also result in a significant investment in East Midtown. I will review the proposal carefully and ensure that it meets the needs of the city.”

Powers added that “public realm contributions were heavily negotiated” in drawing up the district’s rezoning and represent “an innovative tool to use private dollars to address public needs in a congested area.”

Bankoff was surprised the bank chose to demolish the building at all — especially for just 20 or so additional stories. JPMorgan, only six years ago, retrofitted 270 Park to be environmentally friendly at the highest standard set by the US Green Building Council. “It strikes me as unnecessary that they’re demolishing this historic building,” he said. “It’s kind of a flabbergasting moment.”

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