In a ringing defeat for neighborhoods, the Department of Buildings recently dismissed a challenge to a blatant zoning ruse at 62nd and Second Avenue – building luxury megatowers using floors of near-empty space. Cashing in on the use of these “stilts” or mechanical voids to boost building heights is a new trend in New York City development, maybe most notably flaunted at 432 Park Avenue (yes, that one). But after a near year-long fight, the decision has set off a fever pitch of alarm for preservationists and elected officials worried about whether the city has rubber-stamped a loophole.
How to skirt zoning
Last November, the Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts filed a closely watched challenge to the E. 62nd Street project, focusing on the design’s wanton use of mechanical voids. Aside from its garish dissimilarity from the low-rises of Lenox Hill, the luxury Rafael Viñoly-designed tower at 249 East 62nd Street will stack its top twelve floors on what is essentially a 150-ft platform, as reported by Crain’s. Although just 32-stories, the building will soar 510 feet into the air.
Where zoning has nothing to say, developers make the rules
Zoning states that any enclosed space counts towards the building’s floor area unless used for certain purposes, like holding equipment. The gambit usually goes like this: Developers put machinery into one or several floors in a building, usually featuring enormously high ceilings. Luxury residential floors then go on top. You can probably see where this is going.
At the Viñoly building, mechanical voids make up nearly a quarter of the building’s square footage, according to Friends’ challenge. On closer examination of the floor schedule, the 13th through the 16th floor are mechanical, although with ample room on the 15th floor for a bar and wine tasting room, dining room, as well as a study. So much for a mechanical floor.
The building design also reveals a telling detail. The developer outfitted the stilts into an octagonal pedestal that lifts the top sixteen apartments 200 feet higher than the units below. On the top floors, there will be unobstructed panoramas of Central Park and the East River. But it’s never just about the views. If no one else has built that high, you can command what to charge.
Rules aren’t rules when we let developers find and repeatedly exploit loopholes
An obvious stilts loophole
It took until late April for the Department of Buildings to answer and dismiss the challenge from Friends of the Upper East Side. Officials ruled that zoning does not limit the ceiling height of voids, a decision that leaves the stilts loophole wide open. Where zoning has nothing to say, developers make the rules.
“If these tactics continue without being checked by the city, what is the point of having zoning regulations?,” asked Council Member Ben Kallos in a July press release. Friends has since filed another community appeal, which notably includes safety concerns from the New York Fire Department.
How, for example, would firefighters access an elevator stuck between floors within a mechanical void? Will voids improperly impede access to floors above? Let it sink in that there are no answers yet. At the very least, city officials need to study the safety impacts of stilts in New York’s tallest buildings.
By jerry-rigging its design around zoning, the Viñoly tower will reach heights and command prices unthinkable for a 32-story tower. It won’t take long for other developers to follow suit. Council Member Ben Kallos has since joined with Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and preservation groups, including Friends of the Upper East Side, Carnegie Hill Neighbors and the East River Fifties Alliance, to press city officials who have long tolerated zoning abuses.
“Rules aren’t rules when we let developers find and repeatedly exploit loopholes,” said Brewer. The residents of Lenox Hill have long agitated for caps on building heights to preserve their neighborhood. But protests almost always arrive long after a project breaks ground. Beyond the need to modernize zoning, there are pointed gaps in how the public can influence development in their own neighborhoods.
Waiting for de Blasio
Pending the fate of the latest appeal, the fight against stilts grinds to a halt. But if the appeal fails, even more neighborhoods across New York will fall into out-of-scale development. A loophole is insidious not just because of its undeserved legality, but because it allows suspect, even destructive, practices to continue with a passing shrug.
Maybe it was a foregone conclusion whether the historically flaccid Department of Buildings would act. But in July, the de Blasio Administration announced that there would be regulations to address stilts and other zoning tricks by the end of the year. Let’s hope the new rules are enough to skirt a blind race to the top.
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