Making Every Floor Count: City of New York Closes Mechanical Void Loophole

After approval by the city council on May 29, 2019, an amendment that stands to noticeably affect the New York City skyline, has been ratified. It comes in the form of an attempt to close a unique loophole in zoning laws that creates taller residential buildings with far less available living space. The Residential Tower Mechanical Voids Text Amendment imposes new regulations on the use of excessive mechanical voids in building construction.

What, Exactly, Are Mechanical Voids, and What Is the Problem? 

Before this amendment, mechanical voids of any kind did not count in the square footage of usable space in a zoning permit. The reason for this is that these voids usually make up floors for storing mechanical equipment for the building and mechanical bulkheads in the tops of some high-rise structures. In a residential space, these entire floors are not habitable and therefore do not count toward the square footage, hence the name “void.” The projected height of a building generally should not be largely different from the finished product. 

This is where the issue of excessive mechanical voids comes into play and what the amendment hopes to do away with in future projects, involving not only the size of singular voids but also how multiple close voids can be in relation to each other. The amendment seeks to address issues such as:

  • Too-tall buildings. With uninhabitable spaces in a high-rise building reaching and exceeding the equivalent of multiple habitable floors, the final structure is far higher than zoning would have otherwise allowed. This poses environmental changes to other parts of the city, such as longer shadows cast on parts of Central Park, as suggested by activists supporting stronger regulations. 
  • Inflated cost of living. These taller buildings in highly demanded corners of the city use these voids to reduce the amount of livable space on lower floors, meaning the available residences are higher up and ultimately cost more. As the discussion around affordable housing in the city of New York continues to rage, the closing of this loophole has become a necessary part of the discussion

Is The New Legislation Enough? What Are Critics Saying? 

While some hail this decision as an essential first step, others say the amendment is not enough. In some cases, this has already led to some slight alterations. For instance, the City of New York website notes that criticism did lead to some changes before the amendment’s final passage. Initially, the minimum allowable height of a mechanical void that would not be counted among usable space in zoning was 25 feet in height, raised to 30 feet to allow a more reasonable amount of space for mechanical equipment. By and large, criticisms come from both sides of the debate: 

  • Not strict enough, say some critics. Gale Brewer, President of the Manhattan Borough, believes the required distance between voids (before they are counted as zoned space) should be increased from 75 feet to 90 feet. City Councilman Ben Kallos suggested that the allowable size of unzoned space for individual voids should cap at 14 feet rather than 30 feet. 
  • Space is needed for growing energy trends. At a time when New York has committed itself to increasing energy efficiency and reducing its carbon footprint, lobbying groups like the Real Estate Board of New York insist that these limitations further limit developers’ ability to incorporate evolving technologies for lowering energy costs. Mechanical equipment, including ventilation systems and batteries, require space. The latter, especially, are growing larger all the time. 

As the debate continues and further restrictions are proposed at the state and local level, the discussion will only continue to evolve just as the city skyline does. For now, whether it reaches unforeseen heights or becomes more down-to-earth discourse remains to be seen. 

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