By A. Campbell
Representatives from the Department of City Planning faced a packed and vocal crowd during a recent presentation to Manhattan Community Board 7 about a proposed text amendment to place restrictions on developers’ use of excessive mechanical voids in high-rise buildings.
Though they may not realize it, New Yorkers experience the impacts of mechanical voids every day. Looming modern residential towers reach new heights through the use – and many would argue, the abuse – of mechanical voids. Mechanical voids are comprised of floors within high-rise buildings in which the mechanical equipment necessary for the building’s operation – HVAC systems, for instance – is stored. Developers have begun incorporating substantial mechanical voids into project plans as well as stacking multiple mechanical voids on top of one another in order to increase the overall height of a building. This strategy has been described by Assembly Member Richard Gottfried as “merely a ploy to circumvent City laws restricting building height and density.” Nevertheless, the incorporation of mechanical void spaces in project plans is highly popular among developers because residential units situated on high floors are the most lucrative.
According to Nabeela Malik, a City Planner at the New York City Department of City Planning (DCP), the proposed text amendment seeks to address excessively large, contiguous, or clustered residential mechanical voids in towers. Malik and other DCP officials drafted a text amendment for certain residential zoning districts that would limit a developer’s ability to create mechanical voids taller than 25 feet and would require voids in excess of 25 feet to count toward the developer’s allowable floor area.
“DCP spent a year studying how to limit excessive mechanical voids, and produced a targeted proposal that is now in public review,” said a DCP spokesperson. “The fix, which is simple and smart, ensures buildings of predictable size while also allowing for housing development and architectural excellence and expression.”
During the community board meeting, many Upper West Siders declared that the amendment is not strong enough, noting that the proposed language may disincentivize developers from using excessive mechanical voids, but it does not outlaw them. City Council Member Ben Kallos encouraged residents to support groups like Landmark West – a nonprofit that advocates to achieve landmark status for individual buildings and historic districts on the Upper West Side – as well as elected officials who have been vocal in their opposition to mechanical voids. On February 14, Assembly Member Linda Rosenthal introduced legislation to amend the New York State Multiple Dwelling Law and “close the mechanical void loophole.”
In reference to 432 Park Avenue, a luxury condominium that bills itself as “the tallest residential tower in the Western Hemisphere,” Kallos said, “This didn’t happen until you had to offer billionaires multi-million dollar views in order to be incentivized to move into our city. If we can’t get a full height cap [on buildings], which DCP has rejected, the least we can do is close as many of the loopholes as possible.”
In response to the notion of instituting a height cap for buildings, the DCP asserts that a height limit imposed on new buildings is not the solution to the particular problem of excessive mechanical voids. The agency noted that much of New York City’s architectural character is defined by an eclectic mix of buildings, including landmarks – shorter brownstones and lofty high-rises, nineteenth century row houses and gleaming modern structures, all standing side by side.
“Buildings that should be 300 feet tall are 500 feet tall because the empty space isn’t counted,” Kallos argued. “There’s something wrong when [developers] would rather build empty space rather than affordable housing.”
The DCP’s text amendment has also created anxiety and confusion for some Upper West Side groups that are unsure how the proposed legislation could affect their future. One such group is Congregation Habonim, a group founded 80 years ago by Jewish refugees who had escaped Germany in the aftermath of Kristallnacht. Today, Congregation Habonim describes itself as an egalitarian, conservative synagogue that serves hundreds of families and educates almost 200 neighborhood children. During the community board meeting, Richard Verner, President of Congregation Habonim’s Board of Directors, asked whether the text amendment would apply to buildings that have already been approved for development. Verner was referencing a planned skyscraper at 50 West 66th Street that is replacing the congreagtion’s former building. Congregation Habonim’s new facility would be inside the new residential building. The plans for the proposed 775-foot tall tower designed by Snøhetta and developed by Extell Development Company have recently been the subject of intense scrutiny. The Buildings Department rescinded a permit for the development earlier this year.
Verner and other Habonim representatives are concerned that revised city legislation could impact the future of the congregation. The group shared a public statement to relay their concerns. “Congregation Habonim has invested significant time and resources into planning and designing a new permanent home at 50 West 66th Street, based on the currently approved zoning and foundations for that location. While we take no formal position regarding zoning law and the issue of mechanical spaces, we are deeply concerned that the City’s proposed future change is now being used to halt construction of 50 West 66th Street, which is well underway, and will tie up this project for years.”
The congregation’s new space at 50 West 66th Street would include a synagogue; a school with seven new classrooms for pre-school and school-age children and spaces for adult education classes; a playground and garden; and a neighborhood programming and event space which would serve both Congregation Habonim and the broader Upper West Side community. Verner and other members of the congregation expressed their fear that the amendment would have the unintended consequence of making Congregation Habonim effectively homeless, draining the institution’s resources, and jeopardizing it’s future.
The DCP’s mechanical voids proposal is currently under public review and a public hearing is scheduled to take place at the City Planning Commission (CPC) on Wednesday, March 13th. According to DCP spokesmen, the Commission will consider recommendations from the public, affected Community Boards, and Manhattan Borough President, Gale Brewer during the March 13th hearing. Should the CPC choose to approve or modify language included in the proposed text amendment, the amendment would then be sent to the City Council for review.