What Are "Air Rights" and Why Are They Important to Central?

Central Docents, Central Library,
Tower Reconstruction, 1991.
Tower Reconstruction, 1991. William Reagh Collection/Los Angeles Public Library

The shortest answer to the question of importance is that without the funds which the city received for the sale of the air rights above the Central Library site, we might not have the Goodhue Building today. Instead of being renovated, it easily might have been demolished.

But what exactly are "air rights"? That's a longer story.

When the Central Library was completed in 1926, it was state of the art. But as the 1930s and the 1940s came and brought depression and war, there was not much money to spend on it. And the city was growing explosively. By the late 1960s, the Central Library was completely inadequate—too small to contain its collection and serve its patrons and lacking vital features like air conditioning, parking, modern electrical wiring, and sprinklers.

From 1969 to 1986, there was a struggle in Los Angeles about what should happen with the Central Library, now called the Goodhue Building. Some people wanted it demolished and a larger, modern library constructed on the same site. Others wanted the building and its 5-acre site sold and the funds used to construct a new central library in another part of the city. Various suburban locations were proposed.

Restoration Proposal
1974 Proposal to restore the library by Charles Luckman. Courtesy Metropolis Books

A third group was dedicated to preserving the Goodhue Building as it stood because it was an architectural work of art. This group had been mobilized by the 1960s demolition of such Art Deco masterpieces as the Richfield Building, which once stood nearby. They were determined to prevent any more such losses. Eventually, the years-long struggle to save the library gave birth to the Los Angeles Conservancy.

But during the 70s and 80s, while the battle raged, very little was done to maintain or repair the Goodhue Building. By 1985, it was in sad shape—decrepit, dirty, too hot in the summer, and too cold in the winter. Its Flower Street garden was gone, turning into a parking lot, and only the humble Fifth Street entrance remained open to the public. With books piled haphazardly on the floor in the closed stacks because there was no more room on the shelves, it had also become a fire trap which the fire department had cited repeatedly.

Flower Street parking
In 1969 the Flower Street garden was paved for staff parking. Los Angeles Public Library Collection

Closed Stacks

By the 1980s, 85% of the library's books were stored in closed stacks. Los Angeles Public Library Collection

Throughout this long period of struggle and decline, a key issue had been money. How was the repair or replacement of the library to be funded? Some funds for the preservation and renovation of historic structures were available from various governmental sources. And those were tapped. But they were limited, as was city and state revenue because of a national economic downturn (do you remember stagflation?) and the 1978 passage of Proposition 13 in California, negatively affecting the state and the city. Much more was needed. (Eventually, the area renovation known as the Los Angeles Central Library Redevelopment Project cost $1 billion.)

Enter Maguire Thomas Partners, a developer then very active in DTLA. For years, Maguire had sought permission to build an enormous skyscraper that would dominate Downtown L.A. It had plans for a 73-story office building on 5th Street across from the library. But at that time, Los Angeles had a height limit, and the city had repeatedly refused to give Maguire permission to build.

In the early 1980s, Maguire offered to buy from the city the 36 stories that could be added to the 4-story Central Library building if another structure were built on the library site to a maximum of 40 stories. If Los Angeles decided to preserve the 4-story Goodhue Building, it would have no use for the extra 36 stories. Los Angeles agreed to preserve the building, and Maguire bought those stories. This purchase, plus the 40 stories Maguire was already allowed to put onto its site, allowed the partners to construct the 73-story U.S. Bank Tower, which stands today across the street from the library's 5th Street entrance. That building cost $350 million and was initially called the Library Tower. For years, it was described as "the tallest building between Chicago and Hong Kong." Later, it became "the tallest building west of the Mississippi." It remained "the tallest building in California" until 2016 when it was overtaken by the new Wilshire Grand, which stands at 7th and Figueroa.

Library Tower
The 73-story Library Tower (center) paid for part of the library's reconstruction
Los Angeles Public Library

Many similar transactions have been negotiated in the USA in the last 40 years. They are frequently referred to as the purchase of "air rights" and are often proposed to obtain funds for renovating and preserving historic buildings. A person who owns property in this country also typically owns the space above it up to its buildable height. In these air rights transactions, owners sell their rights to build in the space above their property to buyers who want to construct something larger than they would otherwise be allowed to build. Sometimes the purchasers build into the space above a vending building, e.g., cantilevering structures into the purchased air space. But more commonly, they do what happened here. A property owner who hasn't built as big a building as the law allows sells the unused development rights to a developer who wants to build somewhere else. City zoning authorities will often approve the transfer if the overall population density issues within a given area remain the same.

In this specific instance, L.A. had enacted the height limit because of earthquake safety and concerns about excessive demands on the downtown infrastructure, i.e., traffic, parking, power, sewers, water, etc. New building methods, created after the enactment of the height limitation, made the construction of higher buildings safer in earthquake zones. As for demands on infrastructure, it made little difference to the city whether two 40-story buildings were facing each other on 5th Street or one with 73 stories and one with four.

Maguire also purchased all the ground around the library from the city, which does not have the library building standing on it. That gave Maguire sufficient additional air rights to build the Gas Company Tower, which stands at 5th and Olive, and a third building. As part of the overall negotiation, Maguire restored the park that had stood at Central Library's Flower Street entrance to substantially its original 1926 appearance. That space is now called the Maguire Gardens. Beneath the Gardens, Maguire constructed the underground parking garage now used by both library patrons and those working in and visiting the Library Tower. The city and the library have the permanent use of the ground surface above the garage for a park (called an easement). Still, the Tower's owner also owns the underground garage and is responsible for maintaining the surface as a park.

With the roughly $125 million that the city received from Maguire (in cash and kind) and funds from other sources such as city bonds, foundations, and other private parties, the Goodhue Building was renovated, modernized, and restored between 1989 and 1993. The Bradley Wing was also added, doubling the space available for materials and patrons. The total cost of the entire project was $214 million.

Steel Framing
Steel framing for Bradley Wing 1991. William Reagh Collection/Los Angeles Public Library

After a closure of seven years, the renovated library re-opened in 1993. The joint structure composed of the historic Goodhue Building and the Bradley Wing is now called the Richard J. Riordan Central Library.

Please join us for a docent-led tour of the Central Library.

By Sharon Lybeck Hartmann, LAPL Docent