City’s take on ‘voids’ rings hollow: Locals

A rendering of the supertall tower planned at 50 W. 66th St., in the version that would have exploited a 160-foot-high “void” to allow taller construction. The city has pulled the building permits for the project out of concern over its use of the gigantic void. (Rendering courtesy Extell)

BY GABE HERMAN | Local politicians and advocates have started to see some results in their push to end development loopholes that allow for “supertall” buildings by exploiting “voids” — spaces allegedly for mechanical systems but actually empty. But some are saying a tougher crackdown is needed.

City Planning has proposed an amendment to limit the size of mechanical voids. Developers have used these to create big unused gaps in buildings, allowing for taller heights so that apartments have better — and more valuable — views. It’s a way to build higher while still seeming to abide by floor-area restrictions.

A supertall building at 432 Park Ave., between E. 56th and E. 57th Sts., for example, used the mechanical-voids loophole to account for 25 percent of the building’s space.

In January, developer Extell had its permit revoked by the Department of Buildings for an excessively large void in a supertall tower planned at 50 W. 66th St. A half-block from Central Park West, the building, as planned, would have soared 775 feet tall — though with just 40 floors. Extell president Gary Barnett said he may sue the city for imposing restrictions that are not currently law, according to The New York Times.

City Planning’s proposed text amendment for residential towers would count voids taller than 25 feet as part of the project’s floor-area ratio, F.A.R.; count voids within 75 feet of each other as part of the F.A.R.; and impose the same 25-foot void limit for mixed-use buildings where nonresidential uses are less than 25 percent of the building.

The proposal was certified by the City Planning Commission on Jan. 28 and is making the rounds at community board meetings through March 8, as part of the public hearings process.

Councilmember Ben Kallos, whose district includes parts of Midtown and the Upper East Side, has started a petition for people to express support for the amendment. He wrote in his February newsletter, “We’re saying No to empty buildings filled with mechanical voids simply to give the 1% better views while leaving the rest of us in their shadow.”

There are already building height limits in eight of the city’s 10 residential zoning districts, along with all historic districts and some special districts. The issue is in the two other districts, which have no limits on height, though they do have F.A.R. caps. Much of that area falls in Midtown and in Lower Manhattan, at the borough’s southern tip. While the new amendment would protect parts of those areas, other sections which are part of central business districts would remain vulnerable to void loopholes.

Chris Giordano, president of the 64th Thru 67th Streets Block Association, wrote in an announcement to his group that many who are pushing for an end to loopholes felt the amendment didn’t go far enough.

“In some cases [City Planning’s] choices appeared arbitrary and with only the intention to give the developers greater flexibility,” he wrote.

The residents group created a letter template for people to express concerns to City Planning Chairperson Marisa Lago. Among the letter’s requests are that mechanical spaces be limited to 12-feet high; that such spaces be at least 200 feet apart within buildings; that the zoning rules also apply to all commercial and mixed-use buildings, along with residential; and that ceiling heights be capped at 15 feet.

The letter continues by asking for new rules to be swiftly implemented that would “allow reasonable contextual development,” and that would “provide light and air for our neighborhood.”

6 Responses to City’s take on ‘voids’ rings hollow: Locals

  1. NYC is going to pot. With the Democrats in office, we don't need Republicans.

    • All evidence to the contrary, but feel free to make up Fake News.
      Safest big city in America. If NYC were a state, it would be the 10 largest in the US. The only problem NYC has is that so many people want to live here that we could never build enough housing for them all. If we stopped with all the building, this town would be even better.

      • Safest big city is a joke. Murders are up as are violent crimes. Amazing thing about statistics is you can spin them anyway you want to achieve a goal

  2. There has been a lot of discussion within community boards these days about dealing with the so-called “void and mechanical loopholes” in the zoning code. Everyone recognizes that these particular loopholes (which fail to limit ceiling heights) and which concern are spaces that “don’t count” against a developer’s allotment of buildable space are a problem. They result in excessively tall buildings, dystopic streetscapes, and are an end-run around the intent of the zoning code. Two different proposals are out there to fix the situation: a weak one from the Department of City Planning (DCP) and a stronger one from Linda Rosenthal, the Assembly Member from the Upper West Side. There is a way to make their two ideas work together, but only if DCP shows some flexibility in the current ULURP process.

    And hey, DCP really should show some flexibility. After all, they have been only pretending to collect data comes to these void and mechanical spaces, when in reality they are trying to make citywide policy with made-up numbers that are inadequate to the task. It appears they do not know the actual measurements of these void and mechanical spaces, but have merely been eyeballing drawings and collecting articles in the real estate press rather than doing the harder work of what we taxpayers are paying them to do.

    Regardless of how they cooked up their numbers, the City’s proposal to fix the loopholes concentrates on the having to do mechanical spaces only (ignoring the equally bad problem of open voids under stilts). DCP proposes to “limit” mechanical spaces to a single 25-foot high floor (or story) for every six stories or 75-feet of living space. That’s it.

    There are two important criticisms that DCP ought to be listening to. First, the 25-foot figure and the 75-foot figures are both wildly inappropriate giveaways to the real estate industry and are not based in actual data as DCP claims. DCP staff have said in many meetings that “almost all” of the buildings they looked at have about mechanical floors of about 12 feet in height (although it now appears they did not do much actual measuring). But assume their “eye” is accurate. In that case a more reasonable thing to do is to limit mechanical floors to 12 feet in height (as in the Rosenthal legislative proposal), and insist these mechanical floors be interwoven every 200 feet or more, not every 75 feet.

    Why should DCP modify its numbers? First, it is obviously the right thing to do based on what they pretend is normal in the industry. Second, it harmonizes the DCP plan with Rosenthal plan, which is more comprehensive an uses a modification of the State Multiple Dwelling Law to set a limit of 12 feet for mechanical floors and a limit of other “no-counts” to 5% of the allocated FAR. Last, the adjusted DCP plan also needs to cover the length of 57th Street, on both sides which is where so many tall buildings are planned. And of course, Rosenthal’s plan could be improved too if she included voids in the 12-foot height limit while continuing the restriction of “no-counts” to 5% of the FAR total. But she is off to a better start that DCP.

    Obviously, a much better plan would be to get rid of no-counts altogether, but that is not the offer on the table. While we think Rosenthal’s proposal is superior, it is possible for both proposals to be made to work together if DCP shows some flexibility. Can it? Isn’t that what ULURP is for, to show some flexibility?

  3. I find it hilariously hypocritical for anyone to criticize tall building in the city where they have been traditionally celebrated. I bet the crew of worthless NIMBYs who seem to populate the city now, would have been marching with torches and pitchforks when the Chrysler Building and Empire State Building were built.

    If you want to live someplace without skyscrapers, move out to East Podunk someplace. NYC is all about tall buildings.

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