New York CIty Council Member Ben Kallos

Curbed Lawmakers say the city must crack down on ambiguities in the zoning code by Caroline Spivack

Lawmakers say the city must crack down on ambiguities in the zoning code

The city recently enacted stricter zoning regulations to curb excessive mechanical spaces in residential buildings, the first in a series of steps geared toward eliminating zoning ambiguities exploited by developers.

In April, the City Council approved a zoning amendment that counts mechanical voids exceeding 25 feet towards a building’s usable space and that restricts builders from creating those spaces within 75 feet of one another. The change cracks down on voids that are sometimes abused to boost prices for pads on those buildings’ highest floors.

Now, elected officials and preservationists are pushing the city to enact stern oversight on additional types of voids and other perceived zoning loopholes.

“These loopholes have the potential to alter the character of a neighborhood and we really do need to figure out how to address them in an effective manner, and that’s a challenge,” Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer said at a Thursday town hall hosted by her office. “We’ve got a long way to go.”

Many neighborhood advocates felt the void amendment did not go far enough, and called for the change to recognize unenclosed voids—such as Rafael Viñoly Architects’ disputed “condo on stilts” on the Upper East Side—as mechanical. They charge that such open-air voids should count toward a building’s floor area ratio. Meanwhile, elected officials urged the city to study how some developers “gerrymander” zoning lots by slicing off slivers to avoid triggering certain regulations. The Department of City Planning (DCP) has committed to studying this trend, but it is unclear if a zoning change will come out of the agency’s review.

DCP’s initial amendment to restrict mechanical voids focused on residential buildings in certain swaths of the city. Now, the agency is in the midst of considering a separate zoning change that regulates mechanical void heights in five central business districts spread across Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn. But these areas have unique conditions that make developing a zoning change a trickier task.

 

“Our initial research has demonstrated that these areas may warrant a little deviation from the general approach we took in the first text amendment,” said Chris Hayner with DCP’s zoning division.

First, because buildings in central business districts are generally allowed higher floor area ratios, larger structures mostly have mechanical voids that are slightly higher than those in residential towers. Second, these dense business districts often result in residential and commercial buildings abutting one another, and to avoid residential windows facing lot lines—which the city does not permit—builders often leave unoccupied levels in the lower portions of buildings.

DCP reviewed new building permits issued over the last 10 years in the central business districts, including the special midtown district, the special Long Island City mixed used district, and the special Downtown Brooklyn district, and found that 60 permits were issued for residential buildings over 30 stories. Of those, 37 had mechanical spaces that were less than 25 feet, but 20 structures had mechanical floors between 25 and 35 feet. Hayner signaled that there may be a genuine need for larger voids in these parts of the city.

“These are only modestly taller than what was permitted by the previous text amendment and appears to be associated with the legitimate need for larger mechanical spaces in comparison to larger buildings,” said Hayner. Three of the buildings, however, did have large voids, presumably to artificially elevate residential units.

Councilmember Ben Kallos, who represents the Upper East Side and who has been a champion of strengthening restriction on voids, called for the city to limit mechanical spaces to no more than 40 feet in these areas, broaden the scope of its review, and to narrow possible exemptions for mixed-use buildings. The issue is especially crucial because excessive voids fill buildings with empty space rather than housing, said Kallos.

“We need more spaces for everyday New Yorkers and fewer spaces for billionaires,” said Kallos. “I think it’s about neighborhood context and having buildings that fit into neighborhoods and that we have efficient spaces. When people would rather build empty spaces than affordable spaces, that’s a problem.” Councilmember Keith Powers and Assembly member Harvey Epstein also called for zoning measures that keep development in greater line with the spirit of the law.

At its core, the abuse of voids fuels the city’s affordable housing crisis, argued William Raudenbush, an activist with the Committee for Environmentally Sound Development, which is one of the groups leading the charge against a contested Upper West Side development at 200 Amsterdam Avenue.

“There are important consequences for affordable housing here, with all these loopholes, if the only thing that makes financial sense is to build luxury towers it creates a direct obstacle toward building affordable housing,” said Raudenbush.

But industry insiders caution that regulating additional voids, especially unenclosed mechanical spaces, could have devastating impacts on architectural innovation in the city if done in a way that lumps certain open-air spaces with mechanical voids.

“It would be very easy to put regulations in place that have unintended consequences,” said David West, the principal of Hill West Architects. “[My firm] all the time does cantilevers, projected bays, and things that are done to make architecture interesting or to allow buildings to be built on complicated sites ... I think everyone would agree we want variety in our architecture and so I at least implore people to be very patient so that we get this part right.”

DCP will present the findings of its review on mechanical voids in central business districts to the City Council in August and aims to present a zoning text amendment to the City Planning Commission in September. The study on unenclosed mechanical voids will not be complete until next summer, according to DCP.

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