A state judge ruled against Extell Development in a lawsuit that challenged the developer’s use of “mechanical voids” that helped lift the proposed building to 775 feet. The building at 50 West 66th Street would be the tallest on the Upper West Side, but it’s raised controversy because critics say it uses a loophole to lift the building above heights allowed in zoning rules. Construction on the site has been stalled for months amid the pandemic and legal challenges.
While developers need space for mechanical equipment like elevator equipment and plumbing, Judge Arthur Engoron wrote that there are clearly other benefits too. The building at 50 West 66th Street includes nearly 200 feet of height for mechanical space, accounting for more than 25% of the building.
“These ‘mechanical floors,’ also boost the height of buildings, and this Court will take judicial notice of the fact that the higher an apartment, the higher the purchase price or rent it can command,” he wrote. “Developers have, thus, increased the number and height of mechanical floors, called by some cynics “mechanical voids,” to raise the height of buildings. The Developer has taken this tactic to a whole new level.”
The judge found that Extell’s use of voids went well beyond a modest section of the building.
“This blatant jacking-up of close to 200-feet (originally set at 214-feet, with a cavernous 160-feet floor, more appropriate for a satellite transmission tower or a circus big-top) is too brazen to be called a ‘subterfuge’; rather, the Developer simply thumbed its nose at the rules. The Proposal’s mechanical voids would be ingenious if they were not so transparent (the word “chutzpah” comes to mind). No sane system of city planning, and no sane system of judicial adjudication would allow developers to end-run around height-limits by including in buildings gargantuan mechanical spaces that may not even contain mechanical equipment and have no purpose other than to augment height beyond otherwise legal limits.”
The city changed rules about mechanical sections last year in a way that limits the size of mechanical space, but Extell had expected its application would be grandfathered in. The Board of Standards & Appeals, which rules on zoning disputes, gave Extell the go-ahead in a split vote. But City Club of New York, a nonprofit civic group, sued to stop the project, arguing that the mechanical sections violated zoning rules even before the city made the law more restrictive.
“This decision is good news for people who want to see the zoning resolution rules followed and ensure that developers are held accountable,” Borough President Gale Brewer wrote on Twitter. “Mechanical voids that don’t actually hold mechanical equipment are counter to logic and, now, to zoning.”
Extell plans to fight the decision, a spokesperson told Gothamist.
“The court’s decision overturns a unanimous, well-reasoned decision of the New York City Board of Standards and Appeals (BSA), the expert body which correctly concluded that Extell’s building plan complies with all applicable zoning regulations,“ Extell said in a statement.