City mulls next steps to crack down on height-boosting ‘zoning loopholes’

The skyline of midtown Manhattan.

Lawmakers say the city must crack down on ambiguities in the
zoning code

The city recently enacted stricter zoning regulations to curb
excessive mechanical spaces in residential buildings, the first in
a series of steps geared toward eliminating zoning ambiguities
exploited by developers.

In April, the City Council approved a zoning amendment that
counts mechanical voids exceeding 25 feet towards a building’s
usable space and that restricts builders from creating those spaces
within 75 feet of one another. The change cracks down on voids that
are sometimes abused to boost prices for pads on those buildings’
highest floors.

Now, elected officials and preservationists are pushing the city
to enact stern oversight on additional types of voids and other
perceived zoning loopholes.

“These loopholes have the potential to alter the character of
a neighborhood and we really do need to figure out how to address
them in an effective manner, and that’s a challenge,” Manhattan
Borough President Gale Brewer said at a Thursday town hall hosted
by her office. “We’ve got a long way to go.”

Many neighborhood advocates felt the void amendment did not go
far enough, and called for the change to recognize unenclosed
voids—such as Rafael Viñoly Architects’ disputed “condo
on stilts
” on the Upper East Side—as mechanical. They
charge that such open-air voids should count toward a building’s
floor
area ratio
. Meanwhile, elected officials urged the city to
study how some developers “gerrymander” zoning lots by slicing
off slivers to avoid triggering certain regulations. The
Department of City Planning (DCP) has committed to studying this
trend
, but it is unclear if a zoning change will come out of
the agency’s review.

DCP’s initial amendment to restrict mechanical voids focused
on residential buildings in certain swaths of the city. Now, the
agency is in the midst of considering a separate zoning change that
regulates mechanical void heights in five central business
districts spread across Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn. But these
areas have unique conditions that make developing a zoning change a
trickier task.

“Our initial research has demonstrated that these areas may
warrant a little deviation from the general approach we took in the
first text amendment,” said Chris Hayner with DCP’s zoning
division.

First, because buildings in central business districts are
generally allowed higher floor area ratios, larger structures
mostly have mechanical voids that are slightly higher than those in
residential towers. Second, these dense business districts often
result in residential and commercial buildings abutting one
another, and to avoid residential windows facing lot lines—which
the city does not permit—builders often leave unoccupied levels
in the lower portions of buildings.

DCP reviewed new building permits issued over the last 10 years
in the central business districts, including the special midtown
district, the special Long Island City mixed used district, and the
special Downtown Brooklyn district, and found that 60 permits were
issued for residential buildings over 30 stories. Of those, 37 had
mechanical spaces that were less than 25 feet, but 20 structures
had mechanical floors between 25 and 35 feet. Hayner signaled that
there may be a genuine need for larger voids in these parts of the
city.

“These are only modestly taller than what was permitted by the
previous text amendment and appears to be associated with the
legitimate need for larger mechanical spaces in comparison to
larger buildings,” said Hayner. Three of the buildings, however,
did have large voids, presumably to artificially elevate
residential units.

Councilmember Ben Kallos, who represents the Upper East Side and
who has been a champion of strengthening restriction on voids,
called for the city to limit mechanical spaces to no more than 40
feet in these areas, broaden the scope of its review, and to narrow
possible exemptions for mixed-use buildings. The issue is
especially crucial because excessive voids fill buildings with
empty space rather than housing, said Kallos.

“We need more spaces for everyday New Yorkers and fewer spaces
for billionaires,” said Kallos. “I think it’s about
neighborhood context and having buildings that fit into
neighborhoods and that we have efficient spaces. When people would
rather build empty spaces than affordable spaces, that’s a
problem.” Councilmember Keith Powers and Assembly member Harvey
Epstein also called for zoning measures that keep development in
greater line with the spirit of the law.

At its core, the abuse of voids fuels the city’s affordable
housing crisis, argued William Raudenbush, an activist with the
Committee for Environmentally Sound
Development
, which is one of the groups leading the charge
against a contested Upper West Side development at
200 Amsterdam Avenue
.

“There are important consequences for affordable housing here,
with all these loopholes, if the only thing that makes financial
sense is to build luxury towers it creates a direct obstacle toward
building affordable housing,” said Raudenbush.

But industry insiders caution that regulating additional voids,
especially unenclosed mechanical spaces, could have devastating
impacts on architectural innovation in the city if done in a way
that lumps certain open-air spaces with mechanical voids.

“It would be very easy to put regulations in place that have
unintended consequences,” said David West, the principal of Hill
West Architects. “[My firm] all the time does cantilevers,
projected bays, and things that are done to make architecture
interesting or to allow buildings to be built on complicated sites
… I think everyone would agree we want variety in our
architecture and so I at least implore people to be very patient so
that we get this part right.”

DCP will present the findings of its review on mechanical voids
in central business districts to the City Council in August and
aims to present a zoning text amendment to the City Planning
Commission in September. The study on unenclosed mechanical voids
will not be complete until next summer, according to DCP.

Source: FS – NYC Real Estate
City mulls next steps to crack down on height-boosting ‘zoning loopholes’