WHY DEVELOP AIR RIGHTS?
Prime commercial land is limited. Prices per square foot can be astronomical. Demand for efficiency to maximize return on investment is growing. No wonder developers and property owners are looking to the sky, with varying degrees of success, to capture all the value they can from each urban parcel. Air rights development may be the solution you are looking for.
Owners and developers, and people in general, are conditioned to think of potential development sites as flat surfaces with essentially two dimensions: north/south and east/west. They see only the surface of the land, and envision the building they will construct for the particular purpose they have in mind; a bank, a drugstore, a restaurant, a strip mall, a parking garage, an office building. If the parcel is larger than they need, they may envision subdividing the parcel to make two or more lots. In most cases, however, they think primarily in terms of land coverage for the type of building they need. They visualize only the two dimensional space depicted on their Site Plan or Plat of Survey.
In 30 out of 50 states, including Illinois and all other Mid-Western states, the “Rectangular Survey System” is in effect. The Rectangular Survey System was adopted in 1785 to meet the needs of the Federal Government as it faced the challenge of dividing vast areas of undeveloped land lying west of the original 13 colonies. The system, developed under the direction of Thomas Jefferson, essentially divides the United States into rectangles, measured in relation to lines known as Meridians and Base Lines.
Development lots are instinctively viewed as the two-dimensional surface of land visually representing a potential development parcel. Descriptions of a parcel typically refer to “a parcel of land X feet by Y feet” located in relation to an intersection or other identifiable landmark.
Once a parcel is “developed”, or designated for development, by construction of improvements on the land, it is natural to think of the parcel as being unavailable for further development (unless the existing improvements are to be demolished).
Classic examples of this are single story commercial buildings at prime commercial locations, a multi-deck parking garage or mid-rise building in a downtown development area, railroad tracks or spurs cutting across valuable urban land and, in some cases, roadways and alleys.
Each of these situations represent, potentially, under-utilization of valuable real estate. Finding a way to develop the “air” above these existing or planned improvements maximizes the economic utility of these parcels and can be like creating “money from thin air.”
The practice of finding ways to utilize the “space above” is often referred to as “air rights development”. Air rights development requires thinking in three dimensions, and requires serious design consideration and legal planning but, when land values are at a premium and zoning permits, the economic return may be dramatic.
Though often overlooked, virtually all of Chicago’s downtown business district is a “city in the air“. People tend to think of streets and street level entrances to buildings in the downtown Chicago “loop” as being at “ground level”. This is simply not the case. Most of what is thought of in the Chicago Loop as being at “ground level” is located 12 to 22 feet above the earth’s surface. This explains the vast network of “lower” streets and passageways in downtown Chicago, such as “Lower Wacker Drive”, “Lower Dearborn Street”, “Lower State Street”, etc. which most people seldom traverse. It also explains why, in 1992, the Chicago Loop business district was virtually shut down by “the Great Loop Flood of ’92”, but few people got wet or even saw any water as office and retail buildings were closed and workers were sent home because of “flooding”.
The point of these observations is to reveal that “development of air rights” is not new. It is also not “. . . some exotic legal manipulation of doubtful efficacy dreamed up by big city lawyers for use only in big cities”. Development of so-called “air rights” is little more than efficient use of a limited resource when use becomes economically feasible and beneficial.
WHAT ARE “AIR RIGHTS”?
“Air rights” are part of the “bundle of rights” constituting fee simple title to real estate. The term “air rights” generally refers to the right of the owner of fee simple title of a parcel of land to use the space above the land. If this right did not exist, it would not be possible to (more…)