New York CIty Council Member Ben Kallos

Testimony in Support of the Residential Tower Mechanical Voids Text Amendment Application by Department of City Planning (N190230ZRY)

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Testimony in Support of the Residential Tower Mechanical Voids Text Amendment Application by Department of City Planning (N190230ZRY)

 Wednesday, March 13, 2019

 

Thank you to City Planning Chair Lago and the members of the City Planning Commission for hearing the Residential Tower Mechanical Voids Text Amendment immediately following review by Community Boards, Borough Board, and the Borough President. We hope the Commission will speedily amend this proposal to reflect community concerns and vote perhaps at the next meeting, on March 27, 2019, so that the City Council may act quickly.

 The Residential Tower Mechanical Voids Text Amendment with requested improvements is supported by Representative Carolyn Maloney, State Senators Liz Krueger, Jose Serrano and Robert Jackson, Assembly Members Richard Gottfried, Harvey Epstein, Robert Rodriguez, and Rebecca Seawright, and City Council Members Diana Ayala, and Keith Powers.

As elected officials in state and city government representing the borough of Manhattan, we stand united in support of this Residential Tower Mechanical Voids Text Amendment, but believe it must be amended to reflect community concerns. We also call upon the Department of City Planning to return to this Commission this summer with a plan to protect commercial districts in Midtown, Hudson Yards, and the Financial District as well as to close remaining loopholes in the Residential text if those loopholes are determined out of the scope of this proposal.

 Eight of ten community boards and nearly a dozen elected officials in Manhattan whose districts would be impacted have placed their support behind a zoning text amendment limiting the use of excessive mechanical voids in buildings, while providing suggestions for improvements. The two community boards that disapproved did so conditionally, asking City Planning to go further in its proposal toward the goal of closing zoning loopholes.

We support the improvements suggested by all ten community boards and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, including the following recommendations, which we believe to be in scope with the current text amendment, and request that the City Planning Commission make the following amendments within the current text:

  • Lower the height allowed for mechanical floors that are exempt from using floor area from 25 feet to 14 feet
  • Increase the height between mechanicals from 75 feet to 200 feet
  • Cover all mechanical voids whether enclosed or unenclosed

 

Additionally, although they may not be in scope, we request that the Department of City Planning investigate the following:

  • Expand geography to all of Billionaires’ Row
  • Exempt mechanical floors to no more than 40 vertical feet within a building
  • Limit exempt mechanical space to a small percentage of the building gross floor area
  • Expand coverage from buildings that are 75% residential to apply to all buildings that include residences
  • Limit excessively tall common spaces and accessory uses
  • Limit zoning lot mergers

 

Reasons for Support

The vast majority of residential neighborhoods in Manhattan are protected from out-of-scale, out-of-context super tall towers by Historic Districts and some Special Districts, as well as by zoning that provides specific height limits, building envelopes, contextual height limits, and finally by a “sky exposure plane” that may not be pierced. In fact, most rezonings proposed by the Department of City Planning rely on these height-limited zoning districts to protect the character of neighborhoods.

However, in a few districts, none of these protections apply. Throughout the Upper East Side and East Midtown, along with some portions of the Upper West Side, and other parts of Manhattan, residential districts are mapped with high-density R9 and R10 (and their commercial equivalents), which permit towers with no height limits, and are only limited by bulk-packing requirements on certain streets and the zoning floor area available.

Tower-on-a-base historically provided height protections along wide streets with stringent guidelines for a base with a street wall, bulk-packing, setbacks, and tower coverage requirements. Tower-on-a-base is the only type of residential tower that can be built on wide streets, which is where most of the high-density zoning can be found. The building base can cover 100% of the lot on a corner and may only cover 70% of the lot elsewhere on the block. The base of the building must have a height between 60 and 85 feet that extends continuously along the street line to be contextual with neighboring buildings. This is followed by setbacks of 10 feet on wide streets and 15 feet on narrow streets. The tower emerging from the base is limited to covering 30% to 40% of the lot. Heights were limited by a requirement that 55% of the floor area on the zoning lot be located below a height of 150 feet. Taken together, all of these requirements create a predictability that should result in buildings between 300 and 400 feet in height.

Advances in construction technology combined with a real estate market incentivizing apartments for billionaires led to buildings like 432 Park, which got 25% of its super tall height by exploiting the mechanical voids loophole. Voids are large spaces in a building meant to house mechanicals, but when abused are mostly empty and used to add height to the building because they currently do not count as zoning floor area. Rafael Viñoly, who designed 432 Park, also proposed 249 East 62nd, which has a base of 12 stories, then a 150-foot mechanical void to raise up 11 stories above. Another proposed building, at 50 West 66th Street, uses a 161-foot mechanical void to reach a height of 775 feet.

 

 

Proposed Changes to the Residential Tower Mechanical Voids Text Amendment

 

Shorter Exempt Mechanical Floors Down from 25 Feet to 14 Feet & Fewer Exempt Mechanical Floors by Increasing Distance from 75 Feet to 200 Feet

The proposal to count mechanical voids whose height exceeds 25 feet or where the voids add up to 25 feet or more within 75 feet as floor area ratio is a good first step to limiting the abuse of mechanical spaces to create voids. Under the proposal, a building could include a mechanical space of 24 feet, then occupied floors for 75 feet, and repeat, leading to a building that is 24% composed of empty mechanical void space as-of-right. However, most mechanical spaces for equipment and boilers, even those on top of buildings, appear to be closer to 15 feet according to Community Board 7. Even a casual observer of our city would note many buildings of 200 feet and taller have modest mechanical spaces above, often invisible from the street below. As such, reducing the exempt mechanical spaces to 14 feet in height with 200 feet between, and repeating, would lead to a functional building that is only 6.5% empty. Reducing the percentage of a building that is empty is essential to ensure new construction is actually building the housing working families in our city need.

 

Limit Exempt Mechanical Floor Area and Height

To avoid incentivizing developers to build to the maximum allowed emptiness, additional limits should be considered that account for the totality of mechanicals in a building. Where mechanical space exceeds more than 40 vertical feet within a building, all of the mechanical spaces should be counted towards floor area ratio. Similarly, the exemption for mechanical space should also be limited to not exceeding a certain percentage (such as 5%) of the building’s gross floor area. As before, it is important that new construction maximize space for housing for everyday New Yorkers.

 

 

All Mechanical Voids Should Be Covered Whether Enclosed or Unenclosed

Shortly after the application for this text amendment was certified, Gothamist reported that the building at 249 East 62nd Street was changing its design, removing the walls of its unused void space, so that it would contain an outdoor void and not a mechanical void, theoretically opening a new loophole, just as the mechanical void loophole was changing. This text amendment should be amended to cover all void spaces, whether enclosed or unenclosed.

 

Cover All Residential Super Tall Towers on Billionaires Row
 

The Residential Tower Mechanical Voids Text Amendment includes the majority of Billionaires’ Row between West 58th and West 59th Streets, but due to the Midtown Special District, it omits West 57th Street, where five projects are already in progress. These projects include:

1. 10-20 West 57th Street, Solow: Demolition permits issued

2. 41 West 57th Street, Sedesco: Demolition permits issued

3. 27-33 West 57th Street, LeFrak/Vornado: Demolition completed

4. 21 West 58th Street a.k.a. 31 Central Park South, Witkoff/Macklowe: Proposed

5. 7 West 57th Street, Solow: Demolition completed

 

While the proposed text amendment would split off a portion of the proposed development at 21 West 58th Street, the other four sites would be completely exempt because they are in the Midtown Special District. Incidentally, an overwhelming majority of the Midtown Special District includes subdistricts. City Planning could easily cover all of Billionaire’s Row without affecting commercial districts by including residential towers within the Midtown Special District, while excluding subdistricts. Alternatively, the proposed text could be amended to override the Midtown Special District just to cover Billionaires’ Row. Either way, Billionaires’ Row should not be filled with empty buildings quite literally built to give billionaires better views at the expense of every New Yorker’s access to light and air in Central Park.

 

Cover All Towers with Residential Use

The Residential Tower Mechanical Voids Text Amendment covers buildings where non-residential use accounts for less than 25% of a building. However, this simply creates a new and straightforward loophole. A building that is 26% non-residential might have 10 stories of commercial space with 20-foot ceilings, a 150-foot void, then starting at 250 feet a residential tower with only 25 stories to become a skyscraper. Only half the height of such a skyscraper would be predicted and contextual according to the zoning text, but the abuse of mechanical voids would still be allowed. This text amendment should cover all buildings that have any residential use.

 

 

Close Loopholes for Excessively Tall Common and Amenity Spaces and

Limit Zoning Lot Mergers

 

As buildings seek additional height, many are looking to common spaces such as lobbies and accessory uses such as amenities for that height. While community rooms and gyms have become standard, many buildings now include children’s play areas and pools. However, as the market incentivizes height, amenities are now expanding to libraries, movie theatres, wine tasting bars, golf driving ranges, rock climbing walls, multi-level running tracks, and perhaps the most bizarre, a 60-foot transparent corkscrew slide. Common spaces and accessory uses should be limited to 20 feet in height, using no more than 40 feet in vertical height, before dividing the heights by 12 to occupy floor area. We can already see the abuses which must be prevented by requiring luxury amenities be paid for with floor area just like any other space.

Most of the high density zoning in our city splits blocks up with high density on wider avenues and lower density on narrow side streets. However, many of the tallest buildings are the result of zoning lot mergers on narrow side streets where unique blocks throughout the city that through mistakes of history are entirely zoned high density. When zoning lot mergers are abused, floor area from an entire block can be gerrymandered and stacked on to a single lot, giving way to a supertall tower. There must be a limit on zoning lot mergers with a binding public review process at the very least.

 

Conclusion

In June 2017, Council Member Kallos wrote to the Department of City Planning (“DCP”) to close “loopholes” such as mechanical voids. In October 2017, Kallos joined Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts (“Friends”) for a meeting with DCP to share their research and proposal. In January 2018, Mayor de Blasio committed to closing the loopholes at a town hall hosted by Kallos in response to a question from Friends. In July 2018, Friends and LANDMARK WEST! launched a borough-wide coalition to close the loopholes. In July 2018, Borough President Brewer and Manhattan Council Members sent a letter to DCP asking them to close the zoning loopholes. On January 25, 2019, DCP wrote to Brewer and Council Members in Manhattan with a proposal to close mechanical voids in residential districts and a promise for a new proposal governing commercial districts in the summer.

The City Planning Commission should include as part of the Residential Tower Mechanical Voids Text Amendment or pass a concurrent resolution to cover all of Billionaires’ Row, limit exempt mechanicals to no more than 40 vertical feet within a building and no more than a small percentage of the building gross floor area, cover all buildings with residential use, and limit excessively tall common and amenity spaces and zoning lot mergers.

The City Planning Commission must approve the Residential Tower Mechanical Voids Text Amendment with the edits suggested by all ten community boards and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer with exempt mechanical floors of 14 feet or less, distance between mechanicals of at least 200 feet and covering both enclosed and unenclosed mechanical voids.

 

Signed:

 

 

 

Ben Kallos

Council Member

Keith Powers

Council Member

Carolyn Maloney

Representative

 

 

 

 

 

 

Diana Ayala

Council Member

Liz Krueger

Senator

Robert Jackson

Senator

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jose Serrano

Senator

Harvey Epstein

Assembly Member

Richard N. Gottfried

Assembly Member

 

 

 

 

 

Robert Rodriguez

Assembly Member

Rebecca Seawright

Assembly Member

 

 

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