Testimony of the Real Estate Board of New York to the City Council Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises in Opposition to Application No. N 190230 ZRY – Mechanical Voids Text Amendment

Basha Gerhards

Vice President

April 15, 2019

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REBNY opposes the proposed text amendment because it does not yet reflect best practices in design, engineering capabilities, and public policy goals.

The text would place a 30 feet limit on 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. As this body undertakes other legislation to address the affects of climate change and to meet shared energy efficiency goals it is critical we do not artificially set limits that preclude the ability of new buildings to meet increasing requirements in sustainability and resiliency.

We believe a rational limit of 35 feet, a singular occurrence per building stacking exemption, and a grace period for buildings currently in the development pipeline would account for the following:

  • Ventilation requirements – Both the surface area and clearance radius of vents have increased in size over time along with the expansion of requirements for ventilation to all living spaces.

  • Stacking or clustering of mechanical floors 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.

  • Energy Infrastructure - Reducing energy consumption and the overall carbon footprint of the city are stated public policy goals. The city also has a stated sustainability goal to move toward electrification. Therefore, the need for building level 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.

  • Resiliency design includes the raising of mechanical and energy systems from below or at grade for sea level rise and 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.

  • Intersection between zoning and the building code – Currently, the mechanical and energy codes are being revised to reflect international code which already requires more in the areas of ventilation, energy storage and efficiencies. It is our understanding that additional changes in increased area will occur, if not in this cycle then certainly in the next.

  • 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.

The City Planning Commission heard expert testimony from design and engineering professionals on all these points. As follow-up, additional materials were submitted, including sample plans and code requirements, to demonstrate equipment size and floor placement. The testimony and supplemental materials have been sent to the Land Use Division at City Council for the councilmembers’ consideration.

While we appreciate that the City Planning Commission modified the proposed limit from 25 to 30 feet to permit flexibility in the future, this modification falls 5 feet short of the recommendation of mechanical and systems engineers and their professional associations. Additionally, the CPC did not address the issue of stacking when floors dedicated to necessary life, safety, and structural support intersect mid-height in a tower. Lastly, the department refused to modify a deeply flawed floor area formula despite concerns from multiple commissioners.

When the City of New York’s Zoning Resolution (ZR) contemplates less desirable, from an aesthetic view, accessory uses such as rooftop bulkheads, signage, parking, and generators, it rightly sets limits. However, in all these cases one is not doubly penalized for necessary, building function uses if one exceeds those limits – instead the first level is considered exempt. Imposing a limit on mechanical spaces is already a drastic departure from a century of zoning. Double counting necessary systems for the purposes of floor area is not punitive – it is prohibitive. So, the fact that there is no relief valve or process for when a floor may need to exceed the limit is wholly inconsistent with the framing and purpose of the Zoning Resolution.

We understand that there may be pressure from neighborhood organizations and councilmember colleagues to set a lower limit than the one approved by the CPC. To do such would be inconsistent with the City Council’s salutary focus on meeting sustainability goals. Limits of 10-14 feet would preclude best practices and would not result in additional housing. Mechanical systems do not take away from housing floor area – they ensure that those spaces are livable. 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.

We urge the City Council to finish the work of the City Planning Commission and further modify the text to reflect engineering expertise.

Topics Covered

  • Zoning
  • Sustainability
  • Technology