Mechanical Voids Zoning Text Amendment Summary and Impact

The Breakdown: Mechanical Voids Zoning Text Amendment Summary and Impact

Credit: Department of City Planning

On Wednesday, May 29th, the New York City Council voted to amend the Zoning Resolution to cap exempt mechanical void space within new buildings in residential neighborhoods. This text amendment went into effect this week. This ruling is a small but powerful step towards closing commonly-abused “loopholes” and restoring predictability to new construction.
So what does this mean?

This zoning text amendment DOES:

  1. Codify a height threshold on “free” mechanical void space

Currently, the allowable zoning floor area of a building does not include spaces used to house necessary mechanical equipment – such as electrical chases, pipe shafts, centralized HVAC systems– that are crucial for buildings to function. Essentially, developers have abused this giveaway to include excessive “free” floor area that far exceeds what is reasonably required to provide necessary mechanical services to a building. Now the exempt spaces will be limited to 25’, or about twice the height that will reasonably accommodate residential mechanical equipment, spaced out at least 75’ from one another. Though the 25’ threshold is generous, it is far more reasonable than the empty spaces exceeding 100’ within new buildings that do nothing to provide community benefits, affordable housing, or an adequate number of units to address the city’s rapidly increasing population.

2. Begin to address the concerns of neighbors, advocates, and elected officials for a zoning text amendment

The initial Department of City Planning study that led to the agency’s recommendation for a zoning text amendment was a direct response to the advocacy of FRIENDS of the Upper East Side, local elected officials, and advocacy and neighborhood groups.  Aiding this campaign was the indispensable urban planner George Janes, whose technical analysis of the zoning tactics leading to unreasonably tall towers in residential neighborhoods informed both the identification of the problem and the discussion of potential solutions.  

Council Member Ben Kallos and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer have been particularly strong allies in this campaign, providing leadership and support from the beginning. In fact, the first public commitment on this issue came at an Upper East Side Town Hall sponsored by Council Member Kallos.  FRIENDS’ Executive Director Rachel Levy’s question to Mayor Bill de Blasio about excessive mechanical voids elicited a pledge from DCP Chair Marisa Lago to  analyze mechanical voids and deliver a solution.

Land use processes are invariably enriched through public influence, and elected officials and advocates showed up in droves to offer public testimony in response to the DCP proposal released in January 2019. While testimony reflected that a comprehensive solution will require further study and more expansive reform, the City has shown its willingness to foster spirited public engagement in the pursuit of addressing legitimate concerns raised by groups like FRIENDS.

This zoning text amendment DOES NOT:

  1. Abolish large voids

 Void spaces larger than 25’ in height may still be included in a building’s design for engineering or aesthetic purposes, but voids larger than 25’ will count toward the site’s floor area ratio dictated under the constraints of existing zoning. While the inclusion of empty spaces will be permissible, voids will be more difficult to exploit simply as a height-boosting tactic now that the portions beyond 25’ will be counted toward a building’s maximum size. Note that nothing in the new zoning text requires “mechanical” spaces to serve legitimate mechanical uses. In fact, the DCP study on the excessive voids concluded that the average mechanical floors for all towers in the initial study area of high-density residential districts in Manhattan were 12’ tall. The 25’ threshold codified in the new text already provides more than double the space necessary for average building mechanicals, and itself is a kind of giveaway.  

2. Hinder in-progress or approved projects

Though the closure of the mechanical void loophole will restore some degree of predictability in future structures, it will not retroactively address completed, in- progress, vested, or approved developments that have profited from this tactic.

3. Fully “void the voids”

It is important to note that this zoning text amendment will only cover enclosed mechanical voids in buildings within Manhattan’s highest density residential districts (R9 and R10 and equivalent). While a powerful step, the scope of this legislation is quite narrow and focuses only on certain voids in certain districts. It will also not comprehensively address such other loopholes as the lack of a codified minimum lot size that prevents developments from evading zoning requirements, or using mechanical voids in commercial districts. However, it is an important first step and “foot in the door,” so to speak, toward the implementation of future measures to ensure predictable growth and protecting the livability of our city.

Geographic scope of residential tower mechanical voids text amendment. Image Credit: New York City Council Land Use Division.

So what comes next?

Massing diagram of 180 East 88th Street. The blue square shows the un-buildable lot. Credit: George M. Janes and Associates

The Department of City Planning has acknowledged that further loopholes need to be addressed by the agency. DCP has committed to completing follow-up zoning studies during Summer 2019 to further expand the geographic scope of the enclosed-voids study into such commercial districts as Lower Manhattan, Midtown, Long Island City, and Downtown Brooklyn. Also this summer, the Department will release results of a study related to the establishment of a minimum lot size for non-residential zoning lots and the impact of tiny, unusual zoning lots.  The un-buildable lots issue first came up at 180 East 88th Street, raised by FRIENDS together with Carnegie Hill Neighbors and Council Member Kallos. Advocates and zoning experts believe that a minimum zoning lot size should be mandated in order to limit the manipulation of zoning lot boundaries and mergers simply to skirt existing zoning regulations.

Massing diagram of 249 East 62nd Street. The grey areas indicate a mix of enclosed and un-enclosed “mechanical” void space. Credit: George M. Janes and Associates

In addition, in Summer 2020 DCP will release its analysis of unenclosed mechanical voids in residential buildings, such as the 150 foot open-air void at 249 East 62nd Street. These unenclosed spaces are NOT covered by this newly-approved mechanical void action. It is not difficult to see how this leaves a gaping hole in the new zoning as developers will likely turn to unenclosed voids to artificially boost upper floors.

These ongoing commitments are a positive sign of DCP’s intention to study other loopholes commonly used in the illegal height-boosting gambits of contemporary buildings. FRIENDS hopes that these studies will yield future zoning text amendments that will be open to debate and commentary in the public arena. We strongly intend to continue working closely with our elected officials to push DCP and the City for more comprehensive and impactful solutions to these issues. We firmly believe that spirited public discourse, though often complicated and rarely expedient, does nothing but enrich the legislative process.

Read More:

Mechanical void loophole closed by City Council vote,” by Caroline Spivak, Curbed New York, May 13, 2019.

City Council passes crackdown on mechanical voids,” by Will Bredderman, Crain’s New York Business, May 29, 2019

City Council’s crackdown on mechanical voids is just the start,” by Georgia Kromrei, The Real Deal, May 30, 2019.

No a-voiding this loophole: How to stop unexpected towers,” by Rachel Levy, Crain’s New York Business, April 8, 2019.

New York Times Covers FRIENDS’ Challenge of 1059 Third Avenue

New York Times Covers FRIENDS’ Challenge 
of 1059 Third Avenue

Left: 1059 Third Avenue massing diagram prepared by George M. Janes and Associates. Right: Photo of in-progress construction at the site, 2019.

As reported in April 2019, FRIENDS of the Upper East Side Historic Districts filed a zoning challenge against 1059 Third Avenue, at the corner of East 63rd Street. Despite the fact that plans were approved in 2015 and construction is well underway, updated 2019 zoning diagrams show that the development relies upon falsified measurements and flagrant zoning violations to achieve its enormous size. The development has exceeded the amount of floor area permitted within this zoning district by nearly 10,000 square feet, or roughly five extra stories on the massive tower. This manipulation, paired with grave safety concerns at the site, illustrates a disturbing disregard for the laws that govern the built environment of New York City.
Last week, in a letter to Mayor de Blasio, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer called for an investigation of the Department of Building’s “egregious lapses…at 1059 Third Avenue, that are either vastly incompetent or wholly intentional, which lays bare flaws in the entire plan review process under which the DOB operates.” Borough President Brewer has been instrumental in championing zoning issues and serving as a crucial voice for common sense development.
Click HERE to view FRIENDS’ Challenge.
Click HERE for more information about the development.

Click HERE to read the full article that was published in today’sNew York Times that details the shameful tactics being challenged by FRIENDS and Borough President Gale Brewer. 

New June Event!

Image: Central Park Conservancy

FRIENDS is pleased to offer this extremely limited opportunity to venture behind the scenes at Central Park’s center stage: the Delacorte Theater. We will tour the famed amphitheater, situated on the banks of Turtle Pond with a striking view of Belvedere Castle, that plays host to The Public Theater’s annual “Shakespeare in the Park” series of  free performances that have featured the likes of Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, Anne Hathaway, Denzel Washington and other celebrated actors. The space was completed in 1962 as the permanent home for Joseph Papp’s Shakespeare Workshop that had been touring the city since 1954.  The theater, named for Valerie and George T. Delacorte, Jr., has been open seasonally ever since and has hosted more than 150 plays, musicals, and of course, Shakespeare productions — free of charge. Join us for this special chance to learn the history of the Public Theater and to explore back (and under!) stage first-hand.

Tickets are extremely limited so reserve your spot today!

Tuesday, June 25th
10:00 a.m.

Delacorte Theater, Central Park
(Enter the Park at 79th Street on the East Side or 81st Street on the West Side)

Free for FRIENDS Members, RSVP Required 

To verify your current membership status, please call 212-535-2526 or email us at info@friends-ues.orgTo become a member or renew, click HERE.

Click HERE to Register

Breaking! City Council Passes 25-foot Limit to Uncounted Mechanical Void Spaces

Image: Department of City Planning

As reported in Crain’s New York Businessthe City Council has voted today to approve a zoning text amendment that will limit uncounted mechanical void space to 25 feet in new developments in Manhattan’s residential neighborhoods. 

This new regulation is a small but significant step in the right direction towards closing the zoning loopholes that undercut predictability in new residential developments in Manhattan. FRIENDS would like to thank our hardworking elected officials Council Member Ben Kallos and Borough President Gale Brewer as well as our civic colleagues and fellow neighborhood advocates for their tireless advocacy on this issue. 

Stay tuned for updates as more information is released.

Read More:

Proposed Text of DCP Amendment, April 10, 2019

FRIENDS of the Upper East Side Advocacy Alert, April 8, 2019

Summary of the proposal, with a map of impacted areas, prepared by Council Member Ben Kallos

City Council passes crackdown on mechanical voids,” by Will Bredderman, 

Crain’s New York Business, May 29, 2019

No a-voiding this loophole: How to stop unexpected towers,” by Rachel Levy, Crain’s New York Business, April 8, 2019.

City overwhelmingly votes to close mechanical void loophole,” by Caroline Spivak, 
Curbed New York, April 10, 2019.

Decision Regarding Marx Brothers Playground Issued

The New York Supreme Court has dismissed an Article 78 filed by the Coalition to Save Marx Brothers Playground comprised of FRIENDS of the Upper East Side, the Municipal Art Society, Carnegie Hill Neighbors, and CIVITAS. The challenge sought to overturn the alienation of this city-owned “jointly operated playground” (JOP) on East 96th Street that would allow the space to be mined for development rights to bolster the size of a private development owned by Avalon Bay.

In a joint statement, the members of the coalition have said: “We are deeply disappointed in the Court’s decision to deny our Article 78 petition, and are weighing our next steps. We are emboldened by Justice Kelley’s judgment, however, that Marx Brothers Playground (prior to its alienation), as well as all publicly owned playgrounds under the jurisdiction of the Commissioner of Parks and Recreation, are parks protected by the New York State Public Trust Doctrine.” Click HERE to read the full statement.

FRIENDS is grateful for the support of the community who supported this fight, and who continue to believe in the importance of protecting our neighborhood’s public open space. The overall area of Upper East Side, despite being a family-friendly residential neighborhood, is comprised of less than 1% open or recreational space. This makes all of our parks, esplanades, POPS and playgrounds all the more precious to residents and FRIENDS intends to continue to strive for their continual protection.