Testimony of the Real Estate Board of New York Before the City Planning Commission in Opposition to Application No. N 190230 ZRY – Mechanical Voids Text Amendment

Basha Gerhards

Vice President

March 12, 2019

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REBNY strongly opposes the proposed text amendment to limit mechanical voids in residential and mixed-use residential buildings in high density, non-contextual residential districts and their equivalents in the Boroughs of the Bronx, Queens and Manhattan.

We are not here to defend excessive spaces. Instead, we are here to advocate for establishing rational limits that reflect best practices in design, engineering capabilities, and increasing requirements in sustainability and resiliency. We are here to support the knowledge and expertise of mechanical and systems engineers and their associations when they tell REBNY, as they will today speak to the Commission, on the practical considerations for designing and planning for these spaces.

The identified problem seems clear enough – excessively tall voids measuring in the hundreds of feet in a handful of residential towers in non-contextual districts. The study approach, instead of focusing on like-sized buildings in like-sized districts, took a broad view and incorporated buildings with no direct relevance to the problem at hand. This has led to a mischaracterization of best practices in high rise construction. The current framework establishes a 25-foot limit and does not permit stacking without a floor area deduction. It is our understanding that a 35-foot limit would be more appropriate and that stacking necessarily occurs at least once in high rise construction due to placement requirements of fire safety mandated water tanks. Stacking also occurs as a practical matter to separate out electrical equipment from plumbing and due to the size and placement on the horizontal and vertical plane of structural and transfer supports. Lastly, ventilation requirements have only grown more robust, and both the surface area and clearance radius of vents have grown. Currently, the mechanical and energy codes are being revised to reflect international code which already requires more in this area. It is our understanding that additional changes in increased area will occur, if not in this cycle then certainly in the next.

Unfortunately, the current study, zoning text, and environmental assessment do not reflect these considerations [See Appendix for an introduction to MEP floors, baseline code requirements et al]. The environmental assessment states that the “proposed actions would not result in significant adverse impacts on land use, zoning or public policy.” However, none of the supporting public materials reference how this text intersects with building code requirements. Nor do the materials or department presentations to date cover the stated public policy goals of reducing energy consumption and the overall carbon footprint of the city. The city has a stated sustainability goal to move toward electrification. Therefore, the need for batteries, which are substantial in size today, will only increase over time. Batteries are also necessary to store off the grid the power from alternative, clean energy sources. We also have yet to see evidence of consideration for the raising of mechanical and energy systems from below or at grade or the need in the future to build in redundancies from the grid to allow for critical life and safety lines to function independently during a sea surge event.

Finally, the proposed text does not adequately address unintended consequences. Staying consistent with the framing of the Zoning Resolution, exemptions should be provided for life and safety requirements and consider proposals that are already in the development pipeline. As a matter of consistency, the first floor of mechanical in a space that exceeds the limit should be exempt, no matter how high the void is and how much floor area is attributed. It is wholly reasonable for the zoning text to be written in a way that allows for tall buildings to be constructed properly and allows space for innovation. Technological advances in engineering is in this city’s DNA and reflected in its best landmarks – including the Equitable Building in which we stand in today for this hearing.

The last point we would raise today is regarding the lackluster engagement process of all stakeholders. The Department of City Planning met with REBNY twice – the first in which we were told of the initial framework and a second meeting to go over anticipated review timeframe and our initial concerns. It was agreed that more time was needed to engage with design professionals to provide feedback on stacking, equipment sizes, sustainability and resiliency. However, the department did not meet with these professionals. The owners, developers and architects that have assembled, designed and built the examples in the department’s presentation were not spoken with directly either.

Nonetheless, REBNY reiterates its offer to the Department and extends to the Commission an opportunity to meet with a focus group of structural and mechanical engineers on fire and safety code requirements and trends in sustainability and energy codes. This group should also discuss unintended consequences to the inclusion of mixed-use buildings. What is clear from our initial discussions with design professionals is that to proceed with establishing similar limits on non-mechanical spaces would undermine New York City’s competitiveness and ability to attract investment. There is no planning rationale to extend limits to Midtown and Lower Manhattan for office buildings where there are no height limits. Limiting non-mechanical public spaces such as atriums, lobbies, and architecturally exemplary public spaces will undercut the very work of this Commission to improve the public realm.

The public review process exists to make proposals better. However, the expedited timeframe for the commission to review and vote on this proposal negates the ability to do so. This timeframe also runs into conflict with the current energy and mechanical code revision process and timeline occurring at the Department of Buildings. We therefore urge the City Planning Commission to disapprove the text amendment as proposed.

Topics Covered

  • Zoning