City Council Approves Cap on ‘Mechanical Voids,’ But Falls Short of Limiting Tall Building Heights

People worried about super-tall buildings in New York have zeroed in on issues like mechanical voids.

By Carol Tannenhauser

Last week, the City Council voted to approve a text amendment to the New York City zoning code, restricting the size and placement of “mechanical voids,” oversized empty floors used in some new buildings to house HVAC and other equipment.

Mechanical voids do not count toward a building’s allowable height, which is determined by zoning regulations. Developers have exploited this loophole, using voids of enormous size to lift lower floors, affording them better views and higher asking prices, opponents say.

Now, voids will be capped at 25 feet, with no less than 75 feet allowed between them. Both Upper West Side council members supported the amendment, but emphasized that it is only a first—and flawed—step toward curbing abuses of the zoning code, which have resulted in taller, “out-of-context” buildings, they claim.

“It’s critical to understand that the zoning text amendment approved by the City Council last week does not place any limitations on building height,” Council Member Helen Rosenthal wrote in an email to WSR. Rosenthal has been actively opposing the rise of two residential skyscrapers in the neighborhood, 200 Amsterdam Avenue and 50 West 66th Street. “The amendment limits the height of voids in residential buildings, and spaces them apart, but it in no way limits how many voids can exist in a building,” she explained.

Council Member Mark Levine warned of other potential loopholes in the zoning code.

“For too long real estate developers have brazenly engaged in a long list of bad-faith practices to skirt the intentions of our zoning laws, including many different types of void schemes. Closing some of these loopholes was a concrete first step, but this law didn’t go far enough in addressing all the creative ways that developers patch together excessive voids to create luxury views at the expense of everyone’s quality of life. Loopholes still exist and, if history is a guide, the developers will continue to take advantage of these soft spots in our regulations. The City Council needs to continue to do more to strengthen our zoning laws so they cannot be so easily worked around.”

“I will continue to press the administration to update New York City’s Zoning Resolution,” Rosenthal said. “We must develop: 1) a more comprehensive approach to voids in all types of buildings, and 2) a policy that truly responds to community concerns about extremely tall, out-of-context buildings throughout the five boroughs.”

Upper West Side state legislators are also addressing the issue.

”Assembly Member Linda Rosenthal and Senator Robert Jackson are co-sponsoring a bill in Albany that she says would tackle the loophole much more comprehensively,” according to The Real Deal. “It would make all space for mechanical equipment count toward a building’s height unless it comprises less than 5 percent of the property’s total area, and it would limit void space to no higher than 12 feet per floor after an initial 20 feet.”

But the state bill is not expected to pass until later this year or next. What will happen to buildings that are currently under construction, such as 50 West 66th Street, the proposed 775-foot tower, whose revised and approved plans call for two 64-foot voids, one 48-foot void, and one 20-foot void? Will it be grandfathered into the city’s old rules, or bound by the new?

“Had these measures been passed when initially promised they would have forced a redesign of 50 West 66th Street and reduced the overall height by approximately 80 feet, or eight standard stories,” said Sean Khorsandi, Executive Director of Landmark West, a nonprofit that is contesting the height of the building before the New York City Board of Standards and Appeals. “The 25:75 rules of the text amendment will not be the reason the tower is stopped. The plans were approved by the Department of Buildings before those rules were in place.”

NEWS, REAL ESTATE | 19 comments | permalink
    1. Steve says:

      I will never understand Helen Rosenthal’s, or any city council member’s, for that matter, perverse and obsessive fetishization of building height limitations. They aren’t even trying to hide their bizarre agenda anymore. The only two words they now utter for any project, anywhere, is “too tall.” They know nothing whatsoever about architecture or HVAC or anything regarding the mechanical complexities of skyscrapers. All they want to do is arbitrarily limit how tall a building is no matter what or where it is proposed (and passing any legislation in Albany assures these ridiculous guidelines will apply to the heart of midtown as much as other smaller neighborhoods). Never mind Manhattan is landlocked and density is desperately needed. Or that construction costs are so great as to inhibit even the thought of affordable housing. These fatuous height-limitation campaigns ignore actual neighborhood problems like homelessness, mental illness and empty storefronts in favor of litigation and press releases about the latest construction “affront to humanity”. This is a meretricious cause célèbre and does NOTHING to help actual people. No one’s life anywhere is changed one iota, for better or for worse, by the size of a building’s mechanical void. Time to move on and actually help your constituents instead of compulsively inserting yourself into arenas in which you have zero knowledge, and yet attempt to wield influence as big as the proposed buildings you’re trying to control.

      • Effie Emerson says:

        Competely agree, except for one thing: in addition to “too tall” they also bleat “out of context” (articulated with a scrunched up nose) which means “I don’t like it.”

        They are almost caricatures of the gadfly, busybody, do-nothing, faux-progressive politicians who give UWSers a bad reputation.

      • Sherman says:

        @ Steve

        I agree with you.

        I doubt any of these politicians have a degree in engineering or architecture.

        There’s no evil conspiracy among developers to artificially inflate the height of new buildings. Oftentimes these voids are a mechanical necessity.

        Developers should do a better job of communicating this to the public.

        That said, these voids are besides the point. There are people out there who simply don’t like tall buildings and are looking for any opportunity to prevent their construction and politicians like Rosenthal and Levine pander to them.


    2. krnyc says:

      The buildings are too tall, blocking my precious view! UWS NIMBYs are the worst and should just move to suburbs.

    3. AC57 says:

      So… didn’t a coalition of architects, engineers, and urban planners say that a 25-foot threshold would be too restrictive? You know, the men and women in charge of actually designing the buildings, developing the technology, and building these buildings? They were just completely ignored because… why again?

      In an instance like this, where laws are impacting a trade when the experts in that trade/industry give a recommendation, I would take their recommendations seriously, and not blow them off completely. With all due respect to advocacy groups and community boards, I don’t see an instance where their expertise gets overridden by the desires of the neighborhood, I’m sorry. Listen to the experts. They agree that mechanical spaces have been abused, but when they are coming up with different numbers, listen to them. That seems like the sensible thing to do, but our government isn’t exactly what I would call sensible.

      These experts deemed that they only needed 35 feet, which is a mere 10 feet more than what was given. They were universal in saying that 50-foot voids are unnecessary, and in their 35-foot recommendation, they said that repetitions would be okay if the total mechanical volume was less than 15% of the building’s total volume. They gave very specific totals, based on their knowledge and experience, and for some reason, everyone is saying that they are crazy, and no one is listening to them. I mean, it’s not like these guys spent their whole lives in this trade, amirite?

      I want to make something clear: Voids had been abused, there’s no question about that, and everyone seems to agree on that. But when the architects, engineers, and urban planners say one thing, the resulting law must come based on what they said. It’s like climate laws. We consult the scientists before making the laws… at least, that’s what I hope happens…

      And, with all due respect, people phrasing this over a battle due to height have a very narrowminded response to this issue, in my eyes. Taller buildings actually seem to do a better job, on average, in helping the affordability crisis. I’m not saying go supertall in residential neighborhoods, but 35-45 stories seem to be the golden height (Riverside South, Hawthorne park fall within those limits, and again, only sources of new affordable housing in the last several years.) Lotteries also pop up in taller buildings as well (75 West End Avenue is one.) The problem should be more about what goes in because those tiny 20 story projects above 72nd Street aren’t helping the housing crisis.

      Also, Khorsandi’s interpretation is a little off: The total void space would’ve been cut by 146 feet, down to 50 feet only. There would be 25 feet of void for every 100 feet of building, and since the existing void spaces add up to 196 feet (Which is atrocious, don’t get me wrong) the new rules would have brought the building’s height down, at least, to 635 feet, which I would argue is just fine.

      I know I have the unpopular opinion on this thread so, but it’s worth saying… I don’t mean to be rude, but I’m extremely disheartened by the response on all levels – city council, state government, community boards, and advocacy groups – who are outright rejecting the knowledge of the experts.

      • UWS_lifer says:

        Don’t you have homework to do or something? Maybe it’s summer break already. I can’t believe a 16 yr old is so bright and engaged in the community. I’m very impressed.

        When I was 16 I just wanted to hang out with my friends in the Meadow…and do other stuff that if I mentioned here I would probably be censored.

      • dannyboy says:

        “I want to make something clear: Voids had been abused, there’s no question about that”

        It’s more than that. There is a grab going on for our neighborhood.

        “And, with all due respect, people phrasing this over a battle due to height have a very narrow minded response to this issue, in my eyes.”

        And you seem to have chosen sides, young man.

        “I know I have the unpopular opinion on this thread so, but it’s worth saying… I don’t mean to be rude, but I’m extremely disheartened by the response on all levels – city council, state government, community boards, and advocacy groups – who are outright rejecting the knowledge of the experts.”

        And a piece of advice: Question ‘Experts’ and ‘Follow the Money’!

        • AC57 says:

          The developers are actually against the proposal brought forth by the architects and engineers. REBNY reluctantly advocated for caps of more than 50 feet, with spaces between the voids also at 50 feet. Initially, they didn’t want a cap at all, but the architects opposed them. Developers and architects aren’t in the same boat for this one.

          I know, I have a bias in this issue, I love tall buildings, I’m not gonna lie. I do believe that effective things can come out of structures that are more moderately built, again, 35-45 stories, but I’ve seen the system fail many times over, and in my eyes, the solutions pushed by many seem to have worked badly in other places (San Francisco specifically)

          • dannyboy says:

            Hey, if you don’t want to follow the money you don’t have to.

            It’s your future to envision as you like.

    4. UWS_lifer says:

      “Well you’ve cracked the sky, scrapers fill
      the air, But will you keep on building higher ‘Til there’s no more room up there?

      Will you make us laugh, will you make us cry? Will you tell us when to live, will you tell us when to die?

      I know we’ve come a long way
      We’re changing day to day
      But tell me, where do the children play?”

      Cat Stevens 1970

    5. George CPW says:

      While we all argue about voids and building heights, the population density in Manhattan increases, while subway capacity is frozen or actually decreases due to poor maintenance. But maybe this is not a problem because the moguls buying these new apartments hardly ever come here, and when they do, they just clog street traffic with their limos.

      • Confused says:

        Actually, by having large voids and whole-floor apartments, the buildings are taking in LESS residents. So there will be FEWER folks clogging the subway stations or riding around in their limos. You should be thanking the developers and cursing Rosenthal.

    6. AC57 says:

      I have some ideas on how this climate could be remedied…

      Firstly, implement some clearer and more efficient rules. I think it’s fair to say that the role of a law is to be clear and efficient, and I think we can all agree that the zoning code is neither. While zoning districts are more or less straightforward, they don’t account for height, only size (which are not the same things.) Under normal circumstances, I would advocate against a height cap, but given everything that has been happening, it seems like a height cap is needed in this neighborhood. I’m hesitant to vouch for it because I know that height caps can fail so badly (As seen in San Francisco) so I would still make the height caps more or less lenient.

      For example, nothing should be built above the Time Warner Center (750 feet) and in the neighborhood between Amsterdam Avenue and Broadway, nothing should be built above 450 feet. The remaining side streets blocks above 66th Street should remain restrictive (The 0s, 100s, 300s blocks), and Central Park West, Riverside Drive, and the Western block of West End Avenue shouldn’t be changed much (maybe up to 360 feet) but the rest of the neighborhood (Amsterdam Avenue, Broadway, Columbus Avenue, and the two-way crosstown blocks) should have height caps that are between 410 and 492 feet. Below 72nd Street, the caps should be a little higher, closer to 574 feet or 656 feet along all the Avenues, and side streets below 66th Street.

      On top of that, height brackets should be made, requiring a certain amount of affordable housing in each bracket. For example, 66th Street would have a 738-foot height cap. How about require 15% affordable housing above 410 feet, and 20% above 492 feet? Just an example.

      Another thing that we can do as a collective is to work with architects, planners, engineers and, most importantly, developers. If we make it clear that we want to work with them, we want to collaborate, and we’re the ones who give the lending hand (With our clear requirements) much good can come about. It appears that a developer (I think it’s Extell, but I could be wrong.) is working with the Upper East Side with a site. That’s what we should strive for. What happened with Alloy, 80 Flatbush Avenue, and Stephen Levin, going around, talking to supporters, opposers, planners and developers, and eventually, getting a much more beneficial compromise, is what Helen Rosenthal should do given the next ULURP project (if that ever happens). Of course, developers need to be held accountable, and if they break our trust, then hostility would be somewhat justified (hostility to Extell is somewhat understandable, but SJP, not really.), but for those entering the area for the first time, or for those with a good track record, we need to work with them. Pushing developers away, and treating them all like a single entity is not going to help us, we need to take it case by case, and be open to working with them.

      I would put this question out: if the voids were outright eliminated, Extell and Snohetta’s project would be 579 feet – would people take that project? Or would you take a 616-foot 200 Amsterdam? (minus the crown, and the 23 foot void)

      Also, can we get Bjarke Ingels to do a project here? You want an efficient and intelligent architect firm, BIG is that firm. So is KPF.

      • UWS_lifer says:

        If this kid is 16 then I just turned 21. And I remember when Carter got elected.:)

    7. Chrigid says:

      It occurs to me that people living higher than, say, the 25th floor are living above the city, not in it.

    8. Holly says:

      The state legislative session ends June 19th. As the City Council members themselves admit, the NYC Text Amendment doesn’t go far enough

      We need to get the Rosenthal/Jackson bill passed this session. We’d like to get as many signatures as possible by Sunday!!

      Here’s a link to Save Central Park NYC’s online petition. Please sign, share, forward, tweet, etc.

      • B.B. says:

        What right does Albany have interfering in local NYC land use?

        That dog of a bill is very heavy lifting for this particular reason. Albany already wields heavy (and some would say outsize power) over local governments. Not everyone is eager to see yet another power grab precedent set.

        In any event Albany seemingly has its hands full trying to pass new rent control laws before they expire, and or this legislative session ends.