“In the event of an emergency, first responders are going to be called upon to run up hundreds of feet of empty building to rescue people in these apartments.”
Council Member Ben Kallos
As the city prepares to tighten restrictions on developers' use of mechanical voids — large, empty spaces within buildings that primarily serve to inflate the height, views and market value of the floors above — a planned Upper East Side tower frequently cited by critics as among the most egregious examples of the practice is in limbo as the Department of Buildings evaluates void-related objections concerning the project.
The developers of the proposed 510-foot residential building at 249 East 62nd St. — derided by critics as a “condo on stilts,” in reference to the 150-foot void between its base and top 12 residential floors — face additional scrutiny from DOB regarding potential fire safety issues posed by the tower's large void space, much of which is classified for zoning purposes as outdoor area.
The DOB notified local elected officials and land use advocates March 4 that it had requested the developer provide “written approval from the [New York City Fire Department] concerning the proposed conditions at the intermediate level outdoor space, including but not limited to FDNY emergency access and safety operations.”
The agency's objections to the project mirror concerns raised by State Sen. Liz Krueger, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, Upper East Side City Council Members Keith Powers and Ben Kallos, and the local nonprofit group Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts, who had formally requested weeks earlier that DOB refer the project to FDNY.
“In the event of an emergency, first responders are going to be called upon to run up hundreds of feet of empty building to rescue people in these apartments,” Kallos told Straus News.
The Fire Department has not yet been in communication with the developer of 249 East 62nd St., an FDNY spokesperson said. Until DOB's objections are resolved and the project receives written FDNY approval, the tower cannot move forward.
Adjusting plans on the West Side
This news came weeks after the DOB took a similar action on the West Side, at Extell Development's planned 775-foot tower at 50 West 66th Street, which features a 161-foot mechanical void on its 18th floor.
In the West Side case, Extell has received the FDNY's blessing after adjusting the building plans to address the department's fire safety concerns. Among other changes, the new plans include “corridors and space at every level in the void for firefighters to operate, remove people in event of a fire, and cross from stairway to elevators which we could not do in the original plans,” as well as a new catwalk along the perimeter of the void's upper level, an FDNY spokesperson wrote in an emailed statement.
“We have approved plans because alterations to their design were made to improve safety in the event the Department would need to respond to a fire,” the FDNY spokesperson said. In order to move forward with the project, the developer will now need to submit revised building plans to the DOB reflecting these changes and satisfying DOB's other objections.
Land use reformers point to the use of excessively large mechanical spaces — which under current zoning rules are not subject to height limits and are exempted from floor area calculations that govern maximum permissible building heights — as one of a number of so-called zoning loopholes that developers have exploited with increasing frequency in recent years, resulting in ever-taller towers that do not fit the scale of their surroundings.
Developers and zoning loopholes
Mayor Bill de Blasio responded to growing pressure from Manhattan elected officials and reform advocates last year by directing the Department of City Planning to examine the voids issue. In late January, the agency proposed a zoning text amendment that would place new limits on the use of mechanical voids in certain residential zoning districts, primarily in Manhattan. DCP plans to propose a second amendment expanding the geographic scope of the proposal later this year.
Much of the public testimony before the City Planning Commission on March 13 focused on perceived shortcomings with the narrow proposal, which many reformers believe will simply prompt developers to employ alternate zoning loopholes to similar ends. For example, the zoning change drafted by the Department of City Planning would only apply to enclosed mechanical spaces; voids classified as outdoor space, such as the one at 249 East 62nd St., would not be impacted.
Keith Powers, whose district includes the site of 249 East 62nd St., said he hopes the commission will incorporate public input and strengthen the proposal that is ultimately sent to the City Council for approval. Developers, Powers said, “will continue to find ways to build odd-shaped buildings or take advantage of loopholes in the zoning resolution to build these huge buildings. Communities can't be expected to move as fast as the real estate community, so we need City Planning to be a partner in trying to address all scenarios at once rather than waiting for subsequent rezonings to happen.”