We are coming on a year since the de Blasio administration first pledged to stop the abuse of mechanical voids, floors of nearly empty space that developers use to inflate the heights and market value of luxury buildings. Soon, the New York City Council will vote on exactly what to do about them.
An easy opportunity
In late January, the Department of City Planning proposed a zoning text amendment that would make mechanical voids count towards a building’s height constraints. But, today current zoning laws barely regulate these spaces. Voids do not have height limits and do not count towards the floor area of a building, which reins in how much space it can take up. It did not take long for developers to seize the opportunity. Voids, or “stilts” in the vernacular, have appeared more and more across developments in New York City in recent years, most visibly in high-profile towers propped up by the near-empty floors.
In one egregious illustration, developers designed a 150-foot pedestal of stacked voids into the blueprints of a building on E. 62nd St. Another tower green-lighted last month on the West Side will soar to 775 feet with the help of a 176-foot. void, even after years of disputes and grandfathered into the old rules even with the coming amendment.
What originally piqued the interest of developers, though, spurred enough backlash to prompt New York City to act. The new amendment is poised to be a major shift in zoning policy that impacts large corridors of Manhattan. But it has been a long four months since the DCP first proposed the resolution.
The longer voids go unregulated, the surer the slow march towards an upended and unrecognizable Manhattan
A Design Challenge
For many, there are still lingering tensions about how far it should go. Originally, the amendment capped voids taller than 25 feet, or that are stacked within 75 feet of one another. But after an outcry from concerned engineers and architects, the height cap softened to a new limit at 30 feet. City architects worried about whether capping void heights would prematurely limit the use of future innovative (read – bigger) mechanical equipment. But, 30 feet is hardly a departure from the 35-foot height recommendation the engineers put forward. And far from the 12-foot minimum for voids to be usable, according to comments the American Council of Engineering Companies made to the zoning and franchises committee.
Beyond these technicalities, the true infighting is about exactly how far the resolution should go. For some City Council members, the design compromise is too much and the resolution too little. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer is calling for more aggressive measures, with a return to the original 25-foot cap, and a more expansive 90-foot space restriction between voids, to prevent stacked designs. Brewer also wants the resolution to limit more instances of how developers use the loophole, such as the “unenclosed” voids classified as outdoor space at the 775-foot “condo-on-stilts” at 62nd Street.
Councilman Ben Kallos, who represents a large swatch of the East Side, agrees. In a notable exchange reported by Curbed, the City Planning Commission threw its support behind calls to restore the original height cap.
Future-proof the City
While there is still much to do to deliver comprehensive zoning reform, this amendment is the right first step in the push to curb overdevelopment. Abusing voids has been a crucial tactic developers have wielded in the face of consistent opposition from New Yorkers. The City Council would be right to strengthen the amendment and prevent any zoning runarounds neighborhood associations and preservationists fear. In the near future, the city will unveil a second amendment to broaden the geographic scope of the first.
How cities change is never a question of inevitability but a long series of choices and delayed attention. In the end, zoning reform asks who can have a stake in that change. The longer voids go unregulated, the surer the slow march towards an upended and unrecognizable Manhattan.
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