By Madeleine Thompson
Exactly what does the Metropolitan Transit Authority own? According to data compiled by the Municipal Art Society, the MTA has 656 properties throughout the city totaling more than 41 million square feet. However, a note at the bottom of the web page housing this information warns that it is difficult to know for sure what belongs to the MTA because many sites are listed under different agencies, such as “New York City Transit Authority,” “Long Island Rail Road” and “Department of Transportation,” to name a few. State Senator Liz Krueger, who represents parts of the East Side from 96th to 10th Streets, has been asking for a complete list of MTA-owned property for 15 years.
“Over the course of those years multiple requests have been made of the MTA to produce a master list of all their properties in the 12 counties [they cover] and what they’re using them for,” Krueger said. “The MTA has never done so.”
The lack of such a list became more problematic for those concerned about land use after the state legislature passed its 2016-2017 budget this spring. Tacked onto the budget was a revision of New York public authorities law that changed the definition of “transportation purposes.” The MTA, a public authority, had previously been allowed to develop their property without restriction or obligation to follow local zoning laws as long as it was for transportation purposes, like storing equipment or building a subway station. Under the new law, the two words have far broader implications: “‘Transportation purpose’ shall mean a purpose that directly or indirectly supports all or any of the missions or purposes of the authority, any of its subsidiaries, New York City transit authority or its subsidiary, including the realization of revenues available for the costs and expenses of all or any transportation facilities.” This put all 656 known MTA properties in play for unrestricted development.
According to Krueger, very few, if any, legislators were aware that this definition had been added. “The language was slipped into the budget with, guilty as charged, almost no legislator realizing it was there,” she said. Once lawmakers did, State Senator Jack Martins, who represents part of Long Island, created a bill to repeal that section of the budget. Krueger was one of its sponsors. But last week that bill to remove the MTA’s power to develop their land in any way, for any purpose was vetoed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
“People didn’t really know or understand because it’s pretty damn esoteric when you start the discussion,” Krueger said. She added that she has since gathered support for a removal of the redefinition of “transportation purposes” from groups including the Municipal Art Society, the Historic Districts Council and the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.
Tara Kelly, vice president of policy and programs at the Municipal Art Society, said her organization discovered the large amount of MTA-owned land coincidentally, while attempting to map all city-owned property. “When we looked to seek out what were individual MTA properties ... there were things that we knew were owned by the MTA but weren’t coming up in our map,” she said. “We’re unable to say definitively ... that we know exactly what is under this jurisdiction of MTA because the data isn’t organized in a way for that to be made clear.”
In particular, Kelly is concerned about the 221 sites owned by the MTA that are zoned for residential development.
Cuomo’s justification for giving the MTA free reign was that it would help generate additional income by allowing the authority to rent land to developers. The MTA declined to comment for this article, but MTA spokesperson Stephen Morello told the Wall Street Journal in June that “The city’s interpretation is extreme and its concern is unwarranted.”
Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, said he didn’t think the potential for increased revenue outweighed the provision’s potential costs. He called the new definition’s implications “mind-boggling and scary.”
After the governor’s veto, those opposed to the MTA’s new power are disappointed but not giving up. Said Krueger: “In my experience when somebody vetoes your legislation the best answer is ... to sit down and have the discussions about the incredible negative consequences that perhaps were not understood by everyone in the room.” Kelly and Berman said they would confer with their elected officials to determine the next step. In the meantime, they’ll be keeping an eye on all the properties they’re aware of that are owned by the MTA.
Madeleine Thompson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org