New York CIty Council Member Ben Kallos

Media Post Electeds, advocates seek to close zoning loopholes by Gregg McQueen

Electeds, advocates seek to close zoning loopholes

Ban the bad precedent.

Elected officials and advocacy groups gathered at City Hall on July 16 to demand that the city close existing loopholes that allow developers to circumvent zoning laws – and expressed concerns that such bad behavior could be repeated in neighborhoods across the city.

They called on the city’s Board of Standards and Appeals (BSA) to take action by ruling against a series of loopholes, including the creation of small unbuildable lots, gerrymandering of lots, and “mechanical voids” inside buildings that allow developers to dramatically increase building height.

“These loopholes allow developers to create buildings that are two or three times higher than surrounding buildings,” said Rachel Levy, Executive Director of the Friends of the Upper East Side Historic District.

She remarked that the circumventions “make a mockery” of the city’s zoning laws and “threaten to permanently upend the character of our residential neighborhoods.”

Advocates pointed to two construction projects in particular – at 200 Amsterdam Avenue and 180 East 88th Street – where they said developers have attempted to exploit zoning laws.

“These are real issues rooted in specific buildings, but they should worry residents in any neighborhood in Manhattan,” said Jim Caras, General Counsel in the office of the Manhattan Borough President.

Caras said the East 88th Street project, a planned 32-story residential building, includes a 10-foot, unbuildable lot that allows the project to skirt zoning rules, as the developer can claim the building no longer fronts on 88th Street, allowing them to build a taller building.

“It’s like playing Whac-a-Mole with an industry that has billions to devote to coming up with new ways to circumvent the rules, and as soon as we find a way to get them to follow one rule, they come up with a new way to do it,” said City Councilmember Ben Kallos. “The creativity is limitless for trying to avoid the rules.”

“The creativity is limitless for trying to
avoid the rules,” said City 
Councilmember Ben Kallos.

Opponents of 200 Amsterdam Avenue, which will be a 668-foot residential tower, said the project carves up portions of several neighboring tax lots, essentially gerrymandering them into a zoning lot that skirts zoning laws. Sean Khorsandi, Executive Director of Landmark West!, suggested that the Department of Buildings (DOB) issued the permit for the project in error.

“The community should not have to catch the mistakes of any city agency, yet if we’re not, we’re forced to bear the brunt of the inappropriate results,” Khorsandi said.

Caras said the use of mechanical voids, the practice of using multiple empty floors in the middle of buildings, do not count against a building’s density limit and allow developers to increase building height.

“These extra void spaces, they’re giving us taller buildings, but not always with more usable space,” stated Caras. “That means no extra housing, no added economic activity for Manhattan, nothing to compensate New Yorkers for the loss of light and air. It’s the exact opposite of what these rules were intended to do.”

The City Hall rally was held in advance of a BSA hearing on July 17, where the Board was scheduled to rule on whether to allow the Amsterdam and East 88th projects to continue.

“It’s really about the BSA going on record saying we need a legislative solution. We need the zoning to change,” said Levy. “It’s also about all the other buildings coming down the pipeline that we know will start to use this tactic more and more frequently.”

“We’re forced to bear the brunt of inappropriate 
results,” said Landmark West’s Sean Khorsandi.

“We are simply asking that the BSA and the Department of Buildings make sure developers are playing by the rules that are already in the books,” said Kallos. “If these tactics continue without being checked by the city what is the point of having zoning regulations?”

At the July 17 hearing, BSA denied the community’s appeal to halt the 200 Amsterdam project.

In response, Khorsandi said that advocates were mulling legal efforts to get a preliminary injunction. He explained that opponents of the building would continue to fight for the closure of zoning loopholes and said Landmark West would also focus on another high-rise development proposed for 50 West 66th Street.

“In all cases, we will be holding the developers to the underlying zoning and work to ensure they follow the law,” he said.

SJP Partners, the developers behind 200 Amsterdam, issued a statement advising that the project received an “exhaustive” year-long DOB review “which reaffirmed that the zoning and building design are in compliance.”

City Planning Commission Chair 
Marisa Lago.

“We have the utmost confidence that the BSA will uphold the DOB’s carefully rendered decision to grant the building permit for 200 Amsterdam,” the statement said.

The BSA did not yet issue a ruling regarding 180 East 88th Street.

Levy called on Mayor Bill de Blasio to order the Department of City Planning to review all zoning loopholes that contribute to oversized development.

For his part, de Blasio has said that he is in favor of tightening the rules. “The logical answer is we should look at all the loopholes and come back with a decision,” he said during a town hall on the Upper West Side on June 27.

Also, City Planning Commission Chair Marisa Lago said in January that her committee would examine the mechanical void issue.

Brewer said that if zoning loopholes stood uncorrected, it could have a harmful effect on neighborhoods going through a rezoning, as developers would be quick to exploit building heights

“Once you’ve set a precedent, then that will always be utilized by developers. It’s really important to stop a bad precedent before it becomes replicated,” she stated. “In Inwood, East Harlem, we haven’t seen this particular situation, but it could certainly happen. The issue is, don’t set a bad precedent because we don’t want it replicated anywhere else.”

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