New York CIty Council Member Ben Kallos

Land Use

AM New York New rules proposed to curb abuse of 'mechanical voids' in high-rises by Sarina Trangle

New rules proposed to curb abuse of 'mechanical voids' in high-rises

West Side, Upper East Side, Queens and the Bronx.

The limits seemed lax to several elected officials and neighborhood groups in Manhattan, who claimed at a hearing Wednesday that the regimen would still allow the proliferation of places like 432 Park Ave., where mechanical voids account for about 25 percent of — and illuminate patches at night of — the 1,396-foot tall condo, according to City Councilman Ben Kallos. 

"We need to pass it immediately due to the sheer number of buildings that are coming down the pipeline that want to use voids to get additional height," Kallos said. "There is always room for improvement, and I am concerned it doesn't go far enough."

Trade groups representing engineers and developers, however, said the framework proposed was not flexible enough for the breadth of buildings it could regulate and raised concerns about it impeding energy efficiency and other construction advancements.

"By restraining innovation at a time when the means of achieving operational and energy efficiencies are rapidly evolving, the legislation could cost the city opportunities for future use of the most advanced and appropriate mechanical health and safety systems," said Paul Selver, a member of the Real Estate Board of New York trade group representing landlords and developers.

Kallos, reading testimony on behalf of 10 other Manhattan politicians, suggested mechanical spaces that stretch beyond 14-feet in height be calculated into buildings' permitted square footage; and grace spaces only be allowed every 200, rather than 75, feet.

AM New York New rules proposed to curb abuse of 'mechanical voids' in high-rises by Sarina Trangle

New rules proposed to curb abuse of 'mechanical voids' in high-rises

City planners have not managed to avoid critiques with their new approach to mechanical voids.

The Department of City Planning suggested new protocols for spaces set aside in residences for electrical, heating and cooling systems after community groups claimed developers were stretching buildings past standard heights by including unusually tall floors for mechanical equipment.

Commercial Observer RIP, ULURP: What City Charter Changes Might Mean for Real Estate by Rebecca-Baird Remba

RIP, ULURP: What City Charter Changes Might Mean for Real Estate

In addition, there are a number of charter revision proposals that will spark alarm among real estate developers. Some politicians and anti-development groups have trained their aim on the Board of Standards and Appeals, a quasi-judicial body that grants minor zoning changes to landlords who argue the city land use rules make development or renovations financially difficult. Councilman Ben Kallos, for example, wants to give the City Council and borough presidents the power to appoint members to the board, which is currently chosen by the mayor. He posits that the mayor has too much power over the land use process, because he appoints the BSA and the majority of the City Planning Commission.

“No single indivdual who is seeking money to run for higher office should be able to control the land use process from beginning to end,” Kallos explained.

Another recommendation on the charter commission’s list calls for allowing the council to veto BSA decisions. But even Kallos acknowledges that could raise legal issues, since the council also signs off on major zoning changes.

Real estate lawyers argue that these two changes could create serious legal issues for the city, because they would politicize a board that’s supposed to be independent of city politics. The BSA exists to offer relief from the city’s zoning code. Without the BSA, developers can argue that zoning qualifies as a constitutional “taking” of property.

West Side Rag West Siders Face Off at Meeting Over Development Tactic that Lifts Building Heights by A. Campbell

West Siders Face Off at Meeting Over Development Tactic that Lifts Building Heights

Representatives from the Department of City Planning faced a packed and vocal crowd during a recent presentation to Manhattan Community Board 7 about a proposed text amendment to place restrictions on developers’ use of excessive mechanical voids in high-rise buildings.

Upper East Side Patch UES Tower On 'Stilts' Halted By City Department Of Buildings by Brendan Krisel

UES Tower On 'Stilts' Halted By City Department Of Buildings

City Councilman Ben Kallos, who represents the Upper East Side, took it upon himself to act as a crusader for the zoning resolution's amendment by visiting 10 of Manhattan's 12 community boards to discuss the proposal. Of those 10 community boards visited by Kallos, eight voted on resolutions to support the city's amendment and two voted to oppose the amendment but said they would switch their position if improvements were made.

Curbed Plans for ‘condo on stilts’ halted over fire safety concerns, says DOB by Caroline Spivack

Plans for ‘condo on stilts’ halted over fire safety concerns, says DOB

“Until they have been demonstrated to be safe, novel designs such as vast void areas must be evaluated by the FDNY,” the letter reads. “Due to the nature of such different design elements and any review processes surrounding aspects of this size, we feel it is critical to involve the FDNY prior to the approval of such building plans.”

Kallos said he is pleased with the “starting point” zoning amendment the city has brought forward, but is “very disappointed that the Department of Buildings has been engaging behind closed doors to close one loophole while it opens another” in terms of open air voids. He said it ultimately boils down to ensuring that first responders can access those living above excessive voids in case of an emergency.

“Tragedies happen, fires happens, and it’s going to be up to our first responders to rescue whomever is in this building. I don’t think it’s right to ask a first responder to climb 150 feet or more of steps just to get where people might be who need saving,” said Kallos.

Levy echoed the Council member’s concern and said the city has a duty to give these structures extra safety scrutiny.

Gothamist After Backlash From UES Residents & Officials, City Halts 'Building On Stilts' Over Fire Safety Concerns by Elizabeth Kim

After Backlash From UES Residents & Officials, City Halts 'Building On Stilts' Over Fire Safety Concerns

On February 15th, state Senator Liz Krueger, Manhattan Borough President Gayle Brewer, Council members Keith Powers and Ben Kallos, wrote a letter to the DOB citing its actions on the Upper West Side project. “Regardless of whether the void in the building proposed at 249 East 62nd Street is enclosed or open air as described to the press, we believe you must also refer this building to the FDNY.”

On Thursday, Kallos said the letter was intended to "call attention to the disparate treatment by the DOB between East Side and West Side." He said he was glad that the matter had been referred to the FDNY, noting that the measure "will ultimately keep residents safe."

Gothamist 'Building On Stilts' That Inspired City To Close Zoning Loophole May Get Built Anyway by Elizabeth Kim

'Building On Stilts' That Inspired City To Close Zoning Loophole May Get Built Anyway

City Councilmember Ben Kallos, who represents the Upper East Side, responded by saying that he was "horrified" that DOB's interpretation appeared to be at odds with that of City Planning. In the past he has asked City Planning to consider adding more height restrictions in certain residential neighborhoods.

Citing 180 East 88th Street and 200 Amsterdam, two other projects that opponents say have used loopholes to add building height, Kallos said, "It's DOB that has been willfully refusing to follow zoning regulations."

Similarly, Rachel Levy, the executive director of Friends, expressed disbelief and frustration at the DOB’s position.

Upper East Side Patch Residents, Pols Rip NYCHA For UES Private Development Project by Brendan Krisel

Residents, Pols Rip NYCHA For UES Private Development Project

Board members also questioned whether NYCHA could have gotten more than $25 million for the land. When asked by the board, Charney said a NYCHA appraisal put the value of the land closer to $60 million. City Councilman Ben Kallos, who pressed Fetner and NYCHA a number of times throughout the meeting, asked if NYCHA could have made more money by just selling air rights at the development to other sites within the neighborhood.

A NYCHA spokesperson did not immediately respond to Patch's request for comment.

In May 2017, the New York City Housing Authority announced that real estate developer Fetner Properties was selected to develop a plot of land currently occupied by a playground between the two Holmes Towers buildings on East 92nd Street between First and York avenues. Fetner bid on the project through a request for proposals launched by NYCHA as part of its NextGen NYCHA initiative to allow private development on public lands to fund capital repairs.

Gothamist NYCHA Residents Excoriate The Agency's 'Desperate' Pitch For Privatization by Elizabeth Kim

NYCHA Residents Excoriate The Agency's 'Desperate' Pitch For Privatization

Gale Brewer, the Manhattan Borough President, and City Councilmember Ben Kallos both attended the hearing to oppose the project, and suggested that the issue may ultimately wind up in court. "I don't want to be specific but we're very serious about this project," Brewer added.

After the hearing, Gregory Morris, president and executive director of the Stanley M. Isaacs Neighborhood Center, a nonprofit at the housing complex whose services includes a community center, after-school programs and daycare, issued the following statement:

"NYCHA residents of Holmes Towers/Isaacs Houses and Members of Manhattan Community Board 8 made clear last night that they were uninformed about the Fetner project, as well as deeply concerned about its legality and potential environmental hazards. As the primary provider of social services in the development for more than 50 years, the Stanley M. Isaacs Neighborhood Center will continue to amplify the voices of public housing residents who have long been ignored and isolated. We will continue to stand with all stakeholders to ensure that this project is subject to the City's Uniform Land Use Review Process, as the preservation of public housing through private investment should never conflict with the preservation of human dignity."

On Wednesday night, after four hours of public testimony, NYCHA officials, who appeared both worn and frustrated by the outpouring of anger, stopped trying to sell the project and conceded the reality of the situation.