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Features

432 Park via Dbox
The city’s skyline is increasingly punctuated by residential towers that are not only high but ultra-high. Take, for example, 432 Park, which soars 1396 feet. But like many of the city’s highest residential towers, 432 Park isn’t necessarily home to more high-rise residents than other buildings. In fact, about a quarter of its 88 floors don’t have any residential units at all. So, what’s actually going on inside 432 Park and many of the city’s other new ultra-tall buildings?

 

While there is some truth to the fact that many of the city’s tallest buildings are home to empty residences, including those that have been bought up by foreign investors, if these buildings appear largely empty, absent owners aren’t entirely to blame. The real problem may be a zoning loophole that permits developers to fill multiple floors with mechanical equipment without officially counting the floors as part of the building. While this is good news for developers who can charge a premium for units on higher floors, these ultra-high buildings have recently come under attack. Indeed, if city planners are successful, developers will soon no longer be able to take advantage of what is commonly known as the “mechanical void” loophole.

Illustration of an "excessive void," courtesy of NYC Planning

The “Mechanical Void”

 

As detailed in a study released by the Department of City Planning in February 2019, under current zoning regulations, mechanical floor spaces can be excluded from zoning floor area calculations, and “there are no explicit height limits on these spaces." As a result, in recent years, some developments have exploited the loophole to build increasingly tall buildings with a higher percentage of upper-story residential units.

While this practice isn’t out of compliance with local bylaws, it is not exactly in keeping with the norm. In most cases, there is a mechanical floor at a lower level, generally between non-residential and residential floors, and in taller buildings, there is generally an additional mechanical floor every 20 stories or so. Now, some local planners and city councilors are calling on the city to put an end to developers taking advantage of the mechanical void loophole to ensure that buildings don’t continue to grow taller while failing to create more livable spaces.

 

Manhattan Borough President Gale A. Brewer has emerged as one of the most vocal opponents of the mechanical void loophole. As she stated in a press release issued by the City Planning Commission in January 2019, “‘Mechanical void’ is developer-speak for ‘make more money.’ I’m glad that DCP is beginning the process of closing these loopholes. The City cannot allow developers to run rings around the Zoning Resolution and permanently damage the character of our streetscapes and neighborhoods in the process.”

 

Ben Kallos, who represents District 5, an area that covers much of the Upper East Side, agrees with Brewer. As Kallos says, “We’re saying no to empty buildings filled with voids simply to give the 1% better views while leaving the rest of us in their shadow.” Kallos’s claim that ultra-tall buildings are leaving most New Yorkers in the shadow of the rich isn’t just a metaphor. Over the past five years, the actual shadows cast by the city’s growing number of super towers have received considerable attention from residents, politicians, and conservationists.

Recommendations by NYC Planning

 

By definition, a tower is “a portion of a building that penetrates the sky exposure plane and is allowed only in specified high-density areas of the city.” In New York City, these areas are primarily concentrated in districts R9 and R10, which are both located in Manhattan. To put an end to the current building charade that continues to see residences rise higher in districts were ultra-high buildings are already permitted, NYC Planning has outlined a proposal that they hope Mayor de Blasio will soon adopt and put into effect. Among other recommendations, the proposal calls for clear limits on the use of “artificially tall residential mechanical voids.” While the guidelines do recognize the need for reasonably sized and distributed mechanical spaces in residential buildings, they aim to limit their unnecessary use.

 

Specifically, NYC Planning is suggesting the following modifications to R9 and R10 and equivalent zoning districts:

 

  • Discourage mechanical void space taller than 25 feet. Mechanical voids taller than 25 feet will count as zoning floor area.
  • Discourage the clustering of void spaces in a way that unduly pads building heights. Any mechanical void spaces located within 75 feet of each other will count as zoning floor area.
  • Address mixed-use buildings. Non-residential mechanical space will be subject to the same 25-foot limit if non-residential uses occupy less than 25 percent of a building.

 

If the amendment is passed, it will limit how large a mechanical space can be and limit the number of mechanical spaces per building. In other words, a developer will no longer be legally permitted to include three 100-foot mechanical voids in a building without counting these voids as actual floors. In a city where space is often difficult to find and many families struggle to find any space to call home at all, the proposed amendment on mechanical voids seems likely to find considerable support among city councilors. Not surprisingly, however, many local developers disagree with the amendment, arguing that it restricts their ability to design and build residences that meet the needs of their clients. But if the amendment is passed, will any New Yorkers find themselves pining for that huge mechanical void in their residence that never came to be? This seems highly unlikely.

Contributing Writer Cait Etherington Cait Etherington has over twenty years of experience working as a journalist and communications consultant. Her articles and reviews have been published in newspapers and magazines across the United States and internationally. An experienced financial writer, Cait is committed to exposing the human side of stories about contemporary business, banking and workplace relations. She also enjoys writing about trends, lifestyles and real estate in New York City where she lives with her family in a cozy apartment on the twentieth floor of a Manhattan high rise.
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