City’s Plan to Halt Zoning Abuse for Supertalls in Residential Neighborhoods is Full of Loopholes – Demand Better

Many of the new very tall buildings in New York City result from including outrageously inflated empty “mechanical voids” inside them, which are exempt from counting towards limits on the size of buildings.  These empty spaces in buildings can add hundreds of feet to their height in order to create super-high (and super-expensive) apartments stacked on top of light- and air-stealing empty enclosed spaces. 

After much pressure, the Mayor has finally decided to finally ‘do something about it.’ His Department of City Planning has released a proposed zoning text amendment that would ‘limit’ how much of these mechanical voids would be exempt from restrictions on building size – read herehere, and here. The proposed changes would apply to residential towers, in residential areas. It would limit any one mechanical floor to no more than 25 feet in height, after which the height would count towards building size limits. And each mechanical floor would have to be separated from the next mechanical floor by 75 feet, or it too would count towards limits. 

Unfortunately, the city’s proposal is full of loopholes, and will likely have little impact. The city has already made clear that they will not apply these rules to unenclosed spaces, so if the ‘void’ has no walls or is stilts, the new restrictions won’t apply. It also does not appear that there would be anything preventing a developer from making every few floors (separated by 75 feet) a 25-foot high mechanical floor, and artificially increasing the size and height of the building to get around limits that way. 

In fact, there are other approaches the City could take which thus far they have refused to do. They could impose absolute height limits on new buildings in residential areas to ensure they remain in context with their surroundings (as “contextual zoning” does, which already exists in several parts of the city). They could limit the overall percentage of mechanical space in residential buildings, which rarely actually require more than a small amount of the building to be dedicated to such space. Or they could require that “mechanical voids” house mechanical equipment necessary for the functioning of a building ONLY, and that all the vast amounts of empty space currently being inserted into these volumes be prohibited. But the City is currently refusing to consider any of these.

We are pleased to report that Community Board #2 has joined us in calling for these changes to the proposed rules.But the rules will be heard by the City Planning Commission on March 13.  It’s critical that we send a message to city officials that the current proposal is woefully insufficient, and we must do more.

March 6, 2019