Brewer Lets Borough Testify on Zoning Loopholes

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer
Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer (Photo by William Engel)

City Council Member Ben Kallos (D-Yorkville, Lenox Hill) got a little emotional when he stood up to testify at a recent hearing on zoning loopholes. By his account, the jogs he takes with his infant daughter at Central Park are becoming less and less enjoyable, as the surrounding architecture casts a larger and larger shadow over the park.

“Objects to the south cast a shadow, at least in this hemisphere, to the north,” said Kallos. “I go running with my daughter; she’s in a jogging stroller. And when I take her jogging in the afternoon, when I finally get to do it, it’s dark in the southern part of the park, particularly in the winter months when it gets cold. And she gets cold, and so we have to stay away from the southern end of the park, because it’s starting to be very, very dark and very, very cold.”

Kallos was one of the more than twenty people who testified last night at Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer’s (D) hearing on mechanical void spaces and other zoning loopholes that architects have been exploiting to circumvent height regulations. The hearing took place at the Borough President’s office, 1 Centre St, from 6:30-8:30 p.m. 

Council Member Ben Kallos testifies on the urgent need to save Central Park (Photo by William Engel)

“These loopholes have the potential to alter the character of a neighborhood, and we really do need to try to figure out how to address them in an effective manner,” said Brewer. “I know that everyone here agrees that development should adhere to the letter and the spirit of the zoning, as well as the context of our neighborhoods.”

At the beginning of the hearing, Chris Hayner and Edith Hsu-Chen, two representatives from the Department of City Planning, summarized the zoning loopholes that they consider to be the most problematic, and the progress they’ve made in addressing them. Their main focus was on the “mechanical voids” loophole, a flaw in the zoning code that doesn’t count floors taken up entirely by machinery when measuring a building’s total height.

Last year, the DCP conducted an “exhaustive citywide analysis” in order to evaluate the scope of the problem. Last spring, they passed a text amendment designed to close the loophole without penalizing buildings with a legitimate need for mechanical space. 

The amendment, said Chris Hayner, differentiates between mechanical spaces that are used pragmatically and those that are used to artificially inflate the building’s height.

“In [the latter’s case], the mechanical spaces are vaulting residential units higher over their residential neighbors, commanding better views and higher prices for the developer,” said Hayner. “These excessively tall mechanical spaces make bad neighbors. They provide blank walls, empty spaces and do not engage with their surroundings.”

Hayner briefly went over some other zoning loopholes, including the “unenclosed voids” loophole, which refers to height added by outdoor spaces.

The rest of the evening had electeds, community leaders and private citizens provide testimony about how these loopholes have affected their own neighborhoods and what they think needs to be done about them. Stacey Shub, a longtime resident of the South Street Seaport, said that she was exposed to the problem as her neighborhood became more and more gentrified.

“Down in my area, we have a large number of subsidized housing, low income, Section 8 residents… we’re not exactly the Jeff Bezos of the world down, but they are the ones who do want to move in,” said Shub. “And they’re allowing super-tall buildings to go in where I can no longer see the sky unless I were to lie on my back. I’m also seeing $20 million condos go in, so I do believe that the idea of affordable housing is lip service.”

Sheila Kendrick, representing Save Central Park NYC, lamented the way that cities “entitle” developers to free space, and claimed that the DCP’s focus on closing loopholes is missing the point entirely.

“The conversation should not be about closing loopholes; it should be about eliminating giveaways,” said Kendrick. “Ken Griffin’s $238 million condo purchase underscores the fact that big real estate is going to be just fine. Mechanicals and amenity spaces should be counted towards square footage. It’s simply the cost of doing business. None of it should be free, unless there’s a discernible public good.”

At the conclusion of the evening, Gale Brewer thanked everyone in the room for showing up and contributing to the conversation.

“We’re taking this very, very seriously, and we’ll keep in touch,” said Brewer. “This is an important issue. Your presence here tonight means everything to the public, to the city, and to all of us who care about their life and safety.”