Preservation Issues

Council Limits Height of Residential “Voids”


-Rendering of 50 West 66th Street - Grey areas show voids - courtesy of West 65th and 66th Streets Block Association and George M. Janes


-Rendering of 50 West 66th Street - Snohetta

UPDATE: May 2019

The City Council voted yesterday to limit the height of mechanical “voids” in residential buildings to 25 feet. This is a good first step, and less than the 30 feet City Planning proposed. But the amendment only addresses one way developers game the zoning laws to create large buildings. Under Council and public pressure, the Department of City Planning agreed to consider expanding the area covered by the new limit to residential buildings in Midtown, Hudson Yards, and Lower Manhattan.

City Planning also said they will look at setting a minimum building lot size, to prevent developers from using lots as small as a few inches to skirt zoning regulations. Next year the City Planning will study “unenclosed voids” such as stilts or enormous terraces. We will hold them to their promise and continue following this issue as it progresses. Read City Planning letter here.
____________________________________________________

Conservancy Asks Council to Tighten “Voids” Limit
UPDATE: April 2019

In the latest skirmish in the fight against “supertalls,” City Planning took their own weak amendment and made it even less effective. We asked the Council to step in and make it better.

At an April 16 City Council hearing, the Conservancy asked the Department of City Planning (DCP) and the Council to improve a proposed zoning amendment that would limit the height of mechanical rooms or “voids.” The amendment would set a cap of 30 feet on “voids.” We asked for it to be reduced even more, or at least, go back to an earlier version of the proposal that set the limit at 25 feet. The amendment would only cover residential buildings, in some parts of the City. (read our testimony)

While all buildings require space for mechanical equipment, developers have been exploiting a loophole in the City’s Zoning Resolution. It doesn’t count these spaces against what developers are allowed to build, enabling “voids” that can be over 100 feet tall, boosting building heights.

We thanked DCP for listening to the many residents, advocates, and elected officials, who have called on the agency to tamp down the “voids,” but we urged them to do much more to address the other multiple loopholes that allow out-of-scale buildings on the edges of historic and contextual-zoned districts. The proposed limit on “voids” had been raised five feet in response to the statements of engineers at a City Planning Commission hearing last month. They testified that more space was necessary to meet sustainability requirements. We asked for the limit to go back to at least 25 feet, arguing that a lower limit on mechanical spaces should incentive new, more compact technologies.

DCP has committed to study additional areas, that are not covered under the amendment, such as West 57th Street or “Billionaire’s Row,” where there are already plans for more high-rises to join existing “supertalls.” We asked for them to make the amendment citywide, to cover commercial buildings, and to also address other tricks that have been used to increase building heights, such as unenclosed spaces, stilts, and gerrymandered lots.

The hearing was in front of the Council’s Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises. Several council members asked DCP to come back with amendments that address all of these issues we raised, and create real predictability for residents. The Subcommittee has not scheduled a vote on the amendment.

Following last month’s on the proposal,

The Conservancy testified in support of a proposed zoning amendment that would limit excessively high mechanical rooms, or “voids,” used to boost building heights in residential buildings. But we told a City Planning Commission (CPC) hearing on March 13 that they needed to do more. (read our testimony)

The amendment would cap “free” mechanical space at 25 feet and allow additional mechanical spaces 75 feet apart. Anything above 25 feet would count against the allowable building size. The amendment only covers parts of Manhattan—though not 57th Street where “supertalls” are being built—and limited areas in Queens and the Bronx.

We testified that the cap should be 12 feet, with 200 feet between additional mechanical spaces. We urged CPC to cover commercial buildings; make the limits citywide; and restrict the other loopholes developers use. Our testimony tracked that of Manhattan Borough President Gail Brewer and many colleague groups.

The Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) and several engineers argued for a 35-foot cap. They said CPC ignored current energy and carbon reduction codes which require more equipment. Commission discussion of the testimony this week (March 25) suggested that the engineers were persuasive. The CPC could vote as early as next week. Whatever the outcome, we will continue to press CPC to action against other zoning loopholes that allow buildings out of scale with their surroundings.

____________________________________________________

Conservancy Supports Zoning Amendment to Limit Voids
UPDATE: March 2019

The Conservancy testified in support of a proposed zoning amendment that would limit excessively high mechanical rooms, or “voids,” used to boost building heights in residential buildings. But we told a City Planning Commission (CPC) hearing on March 13 that they needed to do more. (read our testimony)

The amendment would cap “free” mechanical space at 25 feet and allow additional mechanical spaces 75 feet apart. Anything above 25 feet would count against the allowable building size. The amendment only covers parts of Manhattan—though not 57th Street where “supertalls” are being built—and limited areas in Queens and the Bronx.

We testified that the cap should be 12 feet, with 200 feet between additional mechanical spaces. We urged CPC to cover commercial buildings; make the limits citywide; and restrict the other loopholes developers use. Our testimony tracked that of Manhattan Borough President Gail Brewer and many colleague groups.

The Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) and several engineers argued for a 35-foot cap. They said CPC ignored current energy and carbon reduction codes which require more equipment. Commission discussion of the testimony this week (March 25) suggested that the engineers were persuasive. The CPC could vote as early as next week. Whatever the outcome, we will continue to press CPC to action against other zoning loopholes that allow buildings out of scale with their surroundings.

____________________________________________________

February 2019
Tell City Planning to Limit All Zoning Loopholes

Void the Voids!
The City Planning Commission will hold a hearing March 13 on its proposal to limit excessive mechanical voids in residential buildings. We are asking you to reach out to City Planning prior to the hearing. Ask them to put real teeth in the proposal and limit the “loopholes” that developers use to bypass zoning regulations and boost building heights.

Here’s how: Tell them to cap allowable mechanical space at 12 feet tall and require mechanical spaces to be at least 200 feet apart. Tell them to eliminate the other ways developers game the zoning laws, such as stilts and large outdoor spaces that are only adding height on top of what can be built legally. Tell them to include commercial buildings. And tell them to make their proposal citywide.

Contact City Planning

The proposal has been going before Community Boards as part of the public review process. Several individual Boards have voted yes, but asked for amendments. The Conservancy made the same plea at a meeting of Manhattan Community Boards on February 21. (read statement) City Planning staff in attendance said they are reviewing the proposed amendments.

The current proposal is addressing just one way developers use “loopholes” to get higher buildings. (proposal) It’s a welcome first step. But City Planning must do more.

In response to constituent concerns about buildings out of context with neighborhoods, some City Council Members and State Assemblypersons are introducing bills to eliminate “loopholes.” We welcome the scrutiny this issue is receiving. New Yorkers deserve certainty and predictability in zoning.

____________________________________________________

January 2019
City Moving to Close “Voids” Loophole to Developers

After legal challenges from neighborhood groups, and a large public outcry over zoning loopholes that allowed developers to boost residential building heights, the City is finally moving to void “voids.” Developers have built extra high mechanical spaces—some higher than the ceiling at Grand Central—because these spaces have not counted towards the building’s allowable size.

On Monday, the City Planning Department (DCP) proposed making voids that are taller than 25 feet count as part of the building size. This follows a recent Buildings Department warning that it will revoke building permits for a West 66th Street development unless the developer, Extell, could explain why 160 foot tall mechanical space is necessary.

LANDMARK WEST! had legally challenged the Extell proposal, which would be the tallest building in that neighborhood. The Conservancy is part of a large coalition of groups that pressed City Planning to regulate a variety of zoning loopholes that developers have used to boost the height of buildings and erect more valuable apartments with views.

While this is a welcome first step, DCP’s proposal only covers residential buildings and does not apply to the entire City. The proposal is at the start of a public review process. We will update you as it moves along.

____________________________________________________

August 2018
Void The Voids – Tell City Planning To Act Now For Responsible Development

We need your help to stop a planned 775-foot tower overlooking Central Park that will use more than 200 feet of empty space to get to that height. The proposed skyscraper at 50 West 66th Street is in a special district with height restrictions but the developers have found a way around them: voids.

This week, the focus is on the Upper West Side, but this issue is affecting neighborhoods across New York. These oversized, empty spaces in the middle of “supertalls” boosted the height at 432 Park Avenue, One 57, and other towers. They will continue to artificially inflate buildings, unless the City Planning Department makes a change.

Watch this video to see how this “supertall” will look, just feet away from a historic district.

Community groups, elected officials (see letter) and preservationists have decried these voids and other zoning loopholes in recent months. Some “supertalls” have 100-foot-high boiler rooms and oversized mechanical spaces scattered throughout the buildings.

Please email Marisa Lago, Chair of the City Planning Department, and tell her act now and refuse to allow voids at this and other buildings. The deadline for zoning challenges to 50 West 66th Street is September 9.

Message: Stop Voids Now. Don’t allow a 200-foot void at 50 West 66th Street.

City Planning has said that the agency will study the issue and publish a report by the end of the year. We’re pleased to see them taking that step, but it might be too little, too late. Chair Lago should act now to prevent any more voids.

If built as planned, 50 West 66th would bring midtown “supertalls” to the residential Upper West Side, in the Special Lincoln Square District where height restrictions apply. Allowing this building will encourage future attempts to circumvent restrictions in contextual-zoned areas, National Register historic districts and even City-designated historic districts.

“Supertalls” are a part of New York’s skyline. But they don’t belong in residential areas. Developers shouldn’t be allowed to evade zoning restrictions to achieve them. It’s time for the City to listen to its residents, and end these zoning loopholes.