City Council members are pushing to revert a contested zoning amendment that seeks to shrink mechanical voids used to beef up building heights back to the city’s initial, slightly stricter proposal.
The Department of City Planning (DCP) originally set out to cap voids, which have been exploited by developers to dramatically boost mostly residential towers, at 25 feet before those spaces are counted toward a building’s overall footprint and mandate that the voids be 75 feet apart from one another. But after a slew of concerned engineers and architects argued for more space, DCP tweaked the amendment to allow for a maximum height of 30 feet—despite a chorus of elected officials and advocates urging for greater restrictions.
City Council members slammed the limited scope of the amendment at a Tuesday zoning and franchises subcommittee hearing, arguing that the city has zeroed in on capping void heights while not doing enough to address other areas that builders can exploit.
“I feel that we have gotten lost in technicality and are losing sight of the big picture here,” said Council member Mark Levine, who represents a stretch of Manhattan’s west side. “This is a battle over height and if you close one technical route to excessive height while leaving several more open, developers are certainly going to divert to the other avenues.”
The revision does little to address unenclosed voids, for instance. Rafael Viñoly Architects’ controversial “condo on stilts,” which galvanized the de Blasio administration against the abuse of voids, features a whopping 150 foot space that triggered a wave of outrage. That void is considered “unenclosed” because that section of the structure is exposed to the air. DCP determined that the 249 East 62nd Street building’s proposed void is “much taller than necessary to provide for mechanical purposes” and would actually not be allowed under the amendment if foundation work is still underway before the change is approved—for a time the city said the void would not be hindered under the amendment—according to Edith Hsu-Chen, the director of DCP’s Manhattan office.
But unenclosed voids can be tricky to handle when terraces, plazas, and other outdoor spaces are factored into that definition, noted Hsu-Chen, who called it “premature to commit to an action per say” when it comes to sweeping limitations for unenclosed voids. Instead, DCP says it is “100 percent committed” to at least studying enclosed spaces. That review is anticipated to begin this summer and last about a year, along with a separate review of mechanical voids in additional parts of the city.
Even with a narrower focus then elected officials would like, the proposed changes would still have far-reaching implications.
“It’s important to underscore that this is a major change in zoning policy and regulations,” Hsu-Chen said during Tuesday’s hearing. “For the the first time ever, mechanical spaces would be charged against allowable [floor area]. This is a huge disincentive for any developer to provide mechanical space taller than 30 feet.”
That reasoning did little to satisfy Council members who view the amendment as a sort of stopgap and not a comprehensive solution to addressing colossal voids. The council can amend the zoning amendment back to DCP’s original proposal, but it’s beyond their power to make broader changes to the revision.
“Technically, this is a step in the right direction, but from a public policy point of view it misses the point wildly,” said Council member Helen Rosenthal, who represents the Upper West Side.
In a notable exchange with Council member Ben Kallos, who represents a swath of Manhattan’s east side, Hsu-Chen acknowledged that although the city tweaked the revision to cap voids at 30 feet it would support the council if it amended the modification back to the 25 foot cap.
“We would support the City Council modification,” said Hsu-Chen. “The city planning commission did take into consideration input from expert practitioners and made the modification, but we believe 25 feet would be sufficient.”
DCP acknowledged that its research did not identify buildings where an additional five feet would have been crucial for the function of a void, but said it opted to include the extra space to “future proof” buildings in case of innovations in equipment that require additional space. Though the agency did concede that additional zoning changes could be made later to accommodate such innovations.
The Tuesday review of the zoning change was the first leg in the final obstacle—the City Council—the revision must face before it can be enacted. Kallos told Curbed he anticipates a successfully push for the amendment to be scaled back to its original 25 foot cap.
“I believe we should have widespread support,” said Kallos. “I anticipate that amendment will be the case.”