A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry from September 02, 2016
“Taking wealth from the air” (air rights)

American engineer William J. Wilgus (1865-1949) helped design New York City’s Grand Central Terminal (opened rebuilt in 1913). He designed the railroad tracks to be placed under the ground, and then he sold the “air rights” for the property above the tracks. This was called “taking wealth from the air.”

Wilgus wrote in “The Grand Central Terminal in Perspective” in Proceedings of the American Society of Civil Engineers (1940):

“Thus from the air would be taken wealth with which to finance obligatory vast changes otherwise nonproductive. Obviously it was the thing to do.”


Wikipedia: William J. Wilgus
William J. Wilgus (1865–1949) was an engineer. In 1902 he was responsible for the design and construction of New York City’s Grand Central Terminal. Wilgus coined the term “taking wealth from the air” from his idea to lease the area above the Park Avenue Tunnel in order to help finance the station. He is also credited with the double-stacked track design of the station, that greatly increased its capacity.

Google Books
Proceedings of the American Society of Civil Engineers
Volume 66
1940
Pg. 1413:
The Grand Central Terminal in Perspective
By William J. Wilgus
Pg. 1424:
Thus from the air would be taken wealth with which to finance obligatory vast changes otherwise nonproductive. Obviously it was the thing to do.

Google Books
Grand Central, the World’s Greatest Railway Terminal
By William D. Middleton
San Marino, CA: Golden West Books
1977
Pg. 58:
Thus from the air would be taken wealth with which to finance obligatory vast changes otherwise nonproductive.

American Experience: Grand Central (2011)
Mike Wallace, Historian: Wilgus certainly sees that it is a one big whopping solution to the big problem, which is this train shed. And it may have been glorious in the old days, but it’s a nuisance now. So, electrifying allows you—plus you have to electrify—it allows you to get rid of the shed; it allows you to cover over the yards; it allows you to, you know, have an underground station. Your waiting shed is tucked away out of sight, subsurface. Brilliant. Simple, brilliant. Wildly expensive.

Narrator: The initial estimates of Wilgus’ plan were staggering. At a time when the total yearly revenue for the New York Central was $80 million, Wilgus projected a cost to complete of 40 million. Within a year that estimate jumped to 60, then 70 million. And even though the city and the state had mandated the project by banning steam in Manhattan, not a single dollar of public money went into Grand Central’s reconstruction.

But William Wilgus was undaunted. Rather than scale back, and design a lesser Grand Central, he devised a revolutionary way for the railroad to self-finance the entire project.

Frank Prial, Architect: Now Wilgus recognizes his audience. He realizes he’s dealing with businessmen. He suggests that the railroad take advantage of one of its primary assets: real estate. Because it can convert what is essentially a lost expanse of open scar on the city’s topography— this vast field of train tracks and equipment— and turn that into one of the greatest single real estate residential developments in American history.

Narrator: Wilgus called his idea “taking wealth from the air.” At Grand Central there was no land to build on, just train yard. But, once the tracks were electrified and buried below street level, the space above, the air itself, could now be leased to developers to pay for the entire enterprise. It was the first ever application of what would eventually be called “air rights,” and it forever changed the American landscape.

Kurt Schlichting, Historian: Few New Yorkers who walk north on Park Avenue realize that below them are train tracks, that they’re still over Grand Central, that you have these buildings that don’t have any cellars. They’re the fruit of Wilgus’ vision.

Google Books
Grand Central’s Engineer:
William J. Wilgus and the Planning of Modern Manhattan

By Kurt C. Schlichting
Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press
2013
Pg. 49:
A magnificent new terminal building, the two-story underground train yard, and electrification could all be paid for by taking “wealth from the air.”

Chicago Boyz
“Taking Wealth From the Air”
Posted by David Foster on February 3rd, 2013 (All posts by David Foster)
Grand Central Terminal is celebrating its 100th anniversary…see photo essay here. The station building itself is only the most visible element of a massive, courageous, and very profitable infrastructure project carried out by the New York Central Railroad.
(...)
William Wilgus, the NY Central’s chief engineer, realized that if steam were to be replaced by electricity for this segment of the railroad, then the trackage could be roofed over and the surface would become extremely-valuable real estate. The idea got a strong impetus when in November 1902 a train missed a smoke-obscured red signal and slammed into a stopped train, killing 15 people. The next month, Wilgus wrote to the railroad’s President, arguing for the immediate adoption of his plan. (It had previously been discussed and agreed to in principle, but not funded.) He described the project as “taking wealth from the air”…”a remarkable opportunity for the accomplishment of a public good with considerations of private gain in behalf of the corporation involved.“ The terminal and its support facilities “could be transformed from a nonproductive agency of transportation to a self-contained producer of revenue — a gold mine, so to speak.”

Posted by Barry Popik
New York CityBuildings/Housing/Parks • Friday, September 02, 2016 • Permalink