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City overwhelmingly votes to close mechanical void loophole

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Lawmakers and preservationists called the amendment “stunningly weakened”

The Upper East and West sides in Manhattan.
Max Touhey

The City Planning Commission approved a zoning amendment that cracks down on excessive mechanical voids after weeks of fierce back and forth from opponents and advocates.

In a 12-to-1 vote, the commission approved a change that would mandate the maximum height of a mechanical void that does not count towards a building’s allowable floor area be increased from 25 feet, which was initially proposed in January by the Department of City Planning, to 30 feet—an increase engineers and architects say is more reasonable as not to cram in mechanical equipment at the expense of performance and design.

“This [change] is based on the testimony of the various engineers and our desire to assure that new, more energy-efficient mechanical equipment not be constrained by zoning,” City Planning Commission chairperson Marisa Lago said during Wednesday’s hearing. “Further, the analysis that was done by the Department shows that the excessive mechanical voids that we believe violate the intent of our current zoning aren’t spaces that are a foot or two above the norm—but rather are patently unreasonably tall spaces.”

Under current zoning code, there are few restrictions on mechanical voids. This has led to some contentious structures with excessive voids to boost buildings’ heights, enabling them to charge higher rates for units on the upper levels.

With the amendment, that practice would be weakened. Mechanical voids within 75 feet of one another would also count toward a building’s usable footprint. The rule is geared toward residential buildings, but there are some exceptions for mixed-use structures—if the non-residential section is less than a quarter of the usable space, for example—where it may apply.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and a cadre of City Council members called the amendment a good first step toward curtailing the practice of excessive voids, but felt the zoning change was riddled with loopholes and asked the CPC to strengthen the amendment with server restrictions, including capping voids at 14 feet and increasing the space in which voids can exist near one another from 75 to 90 feet.

Elected officials also wanted the amendment to recognize unenclosed voids—such as Rafael Viñoly Architects’ controversial “condo on stilts”—as mechanical; charging that such spaces should count toward a building’s floor area. They still would not under the current amendment. Additionally, requests that the blocks bounded by West 56th and West 58th streets, and Fifth and Sixth avenues, which are just outside of the district affected by the amendment and include several proposed or in-progress supertalls, were not heeded.

A slew of community groups advocated for the amendment, but many felt that it did not go far enough in curbing additional ways voids can be used to boost the ever-soaring building heights of Manhattan. Now that CPC has approved the amendment, the zoning change will head to the City Council for a final vote. Save Central Park NYC, one community group that supports the amendment, penned a letter to Council Speaker Corey Johnson, Brewer, and several other City Council members urging for elected officials to push for stricter changes.

“As extraordinarily tall buildings continue to form a wall at the southern edge of Central Park, long shadows deprive our ball fields and the Sheep’s Meadow of sunshine,” Save Central Park NYC wrote in an April 10 letter. “We look to you to ensure that this first loophole is closed in a meaningful way.”

State officials slammed the updated amendment as “stunningly weakened” and pointed to legislation that has been introduced at the state level that aims to enact harsher restrictions.

“Don’t be fooled: the text amendment presented does not close the loophole, it actually codifies it,” Assembly member Linda Rosenthal, State Senator Robert Jackson, and eight preservation groups wrote in a joint-statement. “While the City has an opportunity to fix this, we are already moving the fight to the state level, where a newly empowered legislature has its sights set on addressing the causes of inequality and wresting the power away from the real estate power brokers and restoring it back to the people.”