A rendering of the 775-foot residential tower proposed for West 66th Street by Extell Development.
In a victory for opponents of what would be the tallest building in Manhattan north of 59th Street, the city Department of Buildings has reversed course and issued a notice that it intends to revoke the building permits for a controversial condo tower at 50 West 66th Street.
In the notice, DOB states that the 160-foot-tall mechanical void included in plans for a new 775-foot tower violates the city zoning regulations. (Mechanical voids are areas used for mechanical equipment and do not count toward the floor area totals that govern permissible building heights.) Extell Development, the group behind the project, may still move ahead with its approved plans for a 25-story development at the site. The company has 15 days to appeal the DOB’s decision to revoke.
The Extell tower is one of the latest Manhattan projects to face opposition from land-use advocates and local residents. These critics argue that developers, with DOB approval, have relied on loopholes in the building codes to build ever-higher luxury residential buildings — with equally steep price tags — which do not fit within the scale or architectural context of the neighborhoods.
The department’s decision comes as a welcome surprise to the opposition forces; in November, the DOB denied a zoning challenge to the Extell project that focused on the mechanical void and public safety filed by Landmark West!, a land-use and neighborhood preservationist nonprofit, and residents of a neighboring co-op building at 10 West 66th St.
Sean Khorsandi, the executive director of Landmark West!, said the department’s decision was good news, but questioned why DOB twice gave their approval to the project only to now change its mind. “The mechanical void is not serving any purpose other than making the apartments above it more valuable; so the question is now: why was it allowed to get to this point?”
Andrew Rudansky, DOB’s Senior Deputy Press Secretary, said the department sent the developer their letter to revoke following an audit of the building plans and found that a void of the proposed size is not typically found in residential buildings. “In addition, we have raised objections, which the developer has not addressed, that occupants of the building may not be able to get from one emergency stairway to the other, as is required, within the proposed void,” he said.
Extell did not respond to requests for comment by press time.
Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer celebrated the department’s reversal Thursday morning. “From the beginning, I have opposed the developer’s decision to use a monstrous 160-foot void to boost the number of condos with views — and boost sale prices — while robbing the community of sunlight and air,” she said in a statement. “This is a victory not only for the Upper West Side, but for communities all over the city that find themselves outgunned by developers who try to bend or break zoning rules for massive private profit.”
City Council Member Helen Rosenthal called the notice a “critical first step in the process to overhaul the City’s approach to mechanical voids and ‘super-talls.’”
“We are very pleased that the administration is taking this issue so seriously,” she said in a statement. “New York City’s Zoning Resolution needs to be updated so that there is a comprehensive approach to the use of mechanical voids across the borough which puts neighborhood context and public safety first.”
Khorsandi said the issue is far from settled. The DOB could change its mind again if Extell appeals, he said, or Extell could design the building in a different way to make it just as tall as the DOB-rejected plan.
Echoing Rosenthal’s and Brewer’s calls for city-wide reform in the building codes, Khorsandi said Landmark West! is going to continue to put pressure on city officials to curb the use of mechanical voids, atria and amenity sites that aim to skirt regulations.
“We are not against developments. We’re against the loopholes and the abuses of the building codes,” Khorsandi said. “Developers are stretching the limits of what can be approved and they’re doing it now because there’s great profit in it. The limits have never been pushed like this.”