Advocacy Update: Both City and State Move to Address Zoning Loopholes and Curb Supertalls

Public review underway for City proposal to limit mechanical void exemption

Two separate proposals have been introduced to address the role that zoning loopholes are playing in the supertall towers rapidly cropping up in New York City’s residential neighborhoods, and that have been a focus of FRIENDS’ advocacy for over two years. Last month, the City Planning Commission (CPC) certified a Zoning Text Amendment on behalf of the Department of City Planning (DCP)  that is intended to curtail the scale and frequency of excess mechanical void space that is currently exempt from zoning calculations. In the State Legislature, Upper West Side Assembly Member Linda Rosenthal has introduced a bill (A.5026) that would modify the New York State Multiple Dwelling Law (MDL) in relation to floor area. This bill aims to curb residential supertall development through hard limits on exempt mechanical space, and regulation of floor-to-ceiling heights and exempted outdoor spaces.

After tireless advocacy on the part of FRIENDS, our colleagues at Landmark West!, and neighborhood-minded advocates citywide, we are thankful that both DCP and the State Legislature have begun to propose solutions to curb overdevelopment through zoning loopholes. The two proposals differ in both content and procedure, but the good news is that state and city lawmakers agree on the urgent need to maintain predictability in new design and construction and to limit developers’ ability to build sky-high by manipulating the zoning laws. These two related but different proposals are crucial first steps towards formally closing zoning loopholes and regulating buildings in high density districts in terms of their 21st century needs and limitations.

While a positive first step, the City’s proposal takes a narrow view of the issue by focusing solely on discouraging enclosed mechanical void spaces. Though we support DCP’s proposal, there is a critical need for modification in order to make it truly effective. Notably, it does not address unenclosed voids or stilts and therefore may not impact the “Jetsons” building at 249 East 62nd Street which has been a catalyst for both FRIENDS’ and DCP’s work on this issue. DCP has committed to a follow-up action later this year to broaden the scope, and feedback now can help to influence both the current and later proposal. Read DCP’s two-page description HERE.

In contrast, the Assembly bill presents a broad framework for reform that FRIENDS was instrumental in shaping.  It is a much more comprehensive approach than the City’s proposal, and we are hopeful that the parallel proposals of these two varied approaches to different aspects of the loophole problem will enrich the public discourse around these ideas and lead to more productive, and effective policy outcomes. Read the details in Assembly Member Rosenthal’s press release HERE.

Next Steps:

Community Board 8 Land Use & Full Board Meeting Wednesday, February 20th, 6:30 p.m.
Ramaz School, 125 East 85th Street

Tonight, Wednesday February 20th, CB8 will meet to review DCP’s proposal to address excess mechanical voids. A representative from DCP will present the proposal and public comments will be taken. This will be followed by a public hearing of the City Planning Commission in March.

While not a perfect solution, FRIENDS believes the Zoning Text Amendment is a critical first step. We plan to address concerns raised by the proposal, including the senseless exclusion of unenclosed voids and stilts, the continued allowance of multiple exempt mechanical floors, and the seemingly arbitrary choice of 75 feet to prevent clustering. We strongly believe constructive feedback to DCP now can help to shape modifications to the current proposal to address this complex issue, as well as inform the scope of the second action later this year.

Read More:
  1. How Luxury Developers Use the ‘Void’ to Build Sky High,” by Ginia Bellafante, The New York Times, January 24, 2019.
  2. City drafts rules to crack down on height-boosting loopholes,” by Joe Anuta, Crain’s New York Business, January 25, 2019.
  3. “‘Building On Stilts’ That Inspired City To Close Zoning Loophole May Get Built Anyway,” by Elizabeth Kim, Gothamist, February 1, 2019.
  4. “State legislators want to supersede city’s rules to chop luxe towers,” by Joe Anuta, Crain’s New York Business, February 15, 2019.
DCP void graphic

Mechanical Voids Zoning Text Amendment Summary and Impact

249 East 62nd Street, which contains a 150 ft structural void.

249 East 62nd Street, which contains a 150 ft structural void.