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State lawmaker proposes limits on ceiling heights to curb excessively tall towers

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“I think if you’re going to do this, its got to be go big or go home,” said Assembly member Linda Rosenthal

The city threatened to pull permits for Extell’s 50 West 66th Street tower, right, in January for excessive mechanical voids.
Binyan Studios

A state lawmaker is gunning for more aggressive restrictions on the vast mechanical voids developers often abuse to boost their buildings’ heights as a “more robust” solution to the de Blasio administration’s recent zoning amendment.

The bill, introduced last week by New York State Assembly member Linda Rosenthal, seeks to penalize developers who build cavernously high ceilings to house mechanical equipment as a means of elevating a building without officially contributing to its overall allowable size. Rosenthal’s legislation comes less than a month after the city’s proposal to count voids beyond a certain height towards a building’s footprint.

“I’ve been working on this for quite some time so it sort of dovetails with the city’s amendment, but I’ve spoken with advocates and residents who are just dismayed that what’s being built is increasingly taller and taller these days,” said Rosenthal. “They’re being built taller because developers are taking advantage of these voids and that has to stop.”

Current zoning exempts mechanical voids from a building’s floor-area ratio (FAR)—a given property’s square footage—and puts no height limits on those spaces. Luxury developers often exploit this loophole in residential towers to hike up the price for apartments on higher floors.

Last month, the Department of City Planning (DCP) proposed making those voids count toward a residential building’s FAR within high-density districts when they exceed 25 feet high, or when those floors are located with 75 feet of one another.

But Rosenthal’s proposed amendment to the state’s multiple dwelling law goes beyond regulating void heights and seeks to discourage developers from building any floor with ceilings higher than 12 feet. The move would undoubtedly provoke ire from the real estate industry, which already opposes the city’s efforts to close the mechanical void loophole.

“I think if you’re going to do this, its got to be go big or go home,” said Rosenthal, who calls the city’s amendment a “good first step” but believes it doesn’t go far enough. “Developers know what they’re doing, and if it’s not a comprehensive change I think developers are going to be one step ahead.”

Although mechanical voids have been commonly abused in recent years it wasn’t until a Rafael Viñoly-designed “building on stilts” at East 62nd Street prompted backlash for its 150-foot mechanical void stuck in the middle of the tower that the de Blasio administration sought to curtail the spaces. More recently, Upper West Siders have pushed back on an Extell tower designed by Snøhetta on West 66th Street, and the city even threatened to pull the project’s permits in January due to the large swaths of space between floors.

If passed, Rosenthal’s bill would take effect across the city, unlike the CPD’s zoning amendment, which only applies to certain districts. The state legislation would also address related issues such as certain open spaces—terraces, for instance—not counting toward a given building’s FAR.

In past years, such a bill would have had little chance of passing, but with a Democrat-controlled Senate and Assembly, the future of Rosenthal’s proposal is anyone’s guess.

“The whole political climate has changed and people are no longer content with small changes, people are more interested in a bolder approach,” said Rosenthal. “And that’s what we’re giving them here.”