Some Upper East Side residents would prefer not to stare into, or at, the "mechanical void" propping up a luxury high rise slated for imminent construction at 249 East 62nd Street. According to NBC 4, architect Rafael Vinoly's "condo on stilts" strikes some as an aesthetic blight upon the neighborhood enabled by developers' exploitation of zoning law loopholes.
Vinoly, for reference, also brought New York the teetering 432 Park Avenue complex, Manhattan's tallest residential structure. UES residents do not seem particularly interested in living in the shadow cast by another of his architectural concepts. The contested building's design—which perches 12 floors of apartments atop a 150 ft. platform filled with mechanical trappings—looks to many like a sneaky means of raking in the astronomical rental fees on impressive city views, while skirting zoning ordinances that cap the number of square feet developers can commandeer for residential space. Basically, this "mechanical void" is the architectural equivalent of phone books piled on a kitchen chair, only instead of allowing a child to peer over the top of the table, it allows fancy residents in high-priced apartments to gaze out over the tops of all the other buildings and the plebes who dwell within.
"That's not good planning, to have empty space of that magnitude in an area that's residential," Rachel Levy, executive director at Friends of the Upper East Side Historic District and an UES resident, told NBC 4. "You expect to see tower-on-base of relatively predictable form, that's been in place, you see these buildings up and down our avenues. This one totally turns it on its head."
Friends has appealed the construction project, but to no apparent avail: The Department of Buildings greenlit the project in April, after deciding that the gaping mechanical void fits within zoning regulations. Still, according to Crain's, the mayor's office plans to reconsider this sly use of blank space and may eventually "rein in how large [mechanical voids] can be." In a statement to Gothamist, the Department of City Planning said it was "working with our sister agencies to analyze and make recommendations by the end of the year on the question of excessive voids for mechanicals in residential buildings in high density residential areas."
The practice of lofting already high high rises seems to be increasingly common these days. In order to make better use of the more lucrative, view-affording sky space, Crain's reports, builders are now treating what would otherwise be closer-to-street-level apartments as cavernous utility rooms. Crain's explains:
Developers used to think of mechanical spaces as nothing more than perfunctory rooms used to manage the building's power, sewage and climate. The smaller they could be made, the better. Buildable land today, however, is so expensive that developers, to recoup their costs, have seized on anything they can to create the eye-popping views that have become critical in the increasingly competitive business of courting wealthy buyers. The usually dark, inaccessible spaces packed with machinery have given their projects a literal boost.
According to Curbed, Vinoly's giant will stand 32 stories tall, void included. Retail and residential space will take up the first 12 stories, topped by a layer of utility space, followed by prime real estate on floors 17 to 29, and then more mechanical abyss. To judge from the blueprints, the end product will resemble a sort of extraterrestrial spaceship wedged into a water tower. Beautiful, no?