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Plans for ‘condo on stilts’ halted over fire safety concerns, says DOB

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The controversial building galvanized the de Blasio administration’s efforts to crack down on excessive voids

249 East 62nd Street
Rafael Vinñoly Architects

Plans for a controversial Upper East Side “condo on stilts” are on hold due to fire safety concerns, according to the city’s Department of Buildings.

The city has requested the developers behind the 32-story tower at 249 East 62nd Street, designed by Rafael Viñoly Architects, acquire written approval from the fire department “concerning the proposed conditions at the intermediate level outdoor space, including but not limited to FDNY emergency access and safety operations,” states a letter by Thomas Fariello, the acting DOB commissioner, to local elected officials and preservationists.

Fariello’s memo follows those groups expressing concerns over a “mechanical void,” a multi-story, exposed stretch of the building that would, in theory, house mechanical equipment. Critics argue that those are often used to boost a building’s height without drawing from its overall footprint. In doing so, developers could charge higher rates for the building’s upper units, critics say.

In January, the Department of City Planning released a long-awaited zoning amendment proposal that, among other things, would make voids count toward a residential building’s total floor area when they’re taller than 25 feet, or when those floors are located within 75 feet of one another.

But building officials have not outright declared the gap in the 62nd Street building—developed by Real Estate Inverlad and Third Palm Capital—a mechanical void because it is exposed to the open air or is “outdoor space,” as Fariello put it, and may wind up exempt from the zoning amendment. Preservationists find this troubling when this particular “building on stilts” galvanized the city and elected officials to crack down on excessive mechanical voids.

“There’s definitely an issue there when that’s the building we know has gotten the attention of the mayor and city planning,” said Rachel Levy, the executive director with Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts, which pushed for the FDNY to review the 62nd Street tower’s plans. “The idea that that very building won’t actually be effected by this action is concerning and I think there’s some room for improvement there.”

But lawmakers were pleased to see the city take initial steps toward curbing the misuse of voids and that it is heeding their calls for stricter oversight on how a gap from the 13th to 16th floors could make it harder for first responders to access tenants in the 62nd Street building should an emergency occur.

“The Department of Buildings is taking appropriate steps to make sure that these voids don’t create a safety hazard,” said City Council member Keith Powers, whose district encompasses the building. “I have had longstanding concerns about the use of zoning loopholes to avoid complying with zoning of neighborhoods. Those who are looking to develop in my district should be expected to play by the rules.”

A cadre of elected officials—including Powers, Council member Ben Kallos (who reps a neighboring district), Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, and State Senator Liz Krueger—wrote to the DOB in February criticizing the non-mechanical void determination and demanded FDNY specialists be directed to evaluate the design for safety hazards.

“Until they have been demonstrated to be safe, novel designs such as vast void areas must be evaluated by the FDNY,” the letter reads. “Due to the nature of such different design elements and any review processes surrounding aspects of this size, we feel it is critical to involve the FDNY prior to the approval of such building plans.”

Kallos said he is pleased with the “starting point” zoning amendment the city has brought forward, but is “very disappointed that the Department of Buildings has been engaging behind closed doors to close one loophole while it opens another” in terms of open air voids. He said it ultimately boils down to ensuring that first responders can access those living above excessive voids in case of an emergency.

“Tragedies happen, fires happens, and it’s going to be up to our first responders to rescue whomever is in this building. I don’t think it’s right to ask a first responder to climb 150 feet or more of steps just to get where people might be who need saving,” said Kallos.

Levy echoed the Council member’s concern and said the city has a duty to give these structures extra safety scrutiny.

“I think that the city has a responsibility to ensure that among all the sorts of innovations and new building techniques ... that these things are actually fundamentally safe and that in the event of a disaster people will be able to be properly rescued,” said Levy. “And so, I think that fire department review of these buildings is the right, first step.”

There is no deadline for the developers to submit FDNY approval. “The applicant must resolve all DOB objections in order to [press] forward with the project,” DOB spokesperson Andrew Rudansky said.