The skinny on the “sliver law”: City may ax rule that blocks 95,000 homes 

Rule’s removal could lead to 95K units

City May Repeal Sliver Law
(Illustration by Priyanka Modi for the Real Deal with Getty)

In 2014, city officials ordered developer Ben Shaoul to demolish the penthouse at 515 East Fifth Street. Among other issues officials found, the building’s seventh floor violated the “sliver law.”

The little-known city law is a section of the zoning code that, in certain districts, restricts the height of buildings on lots less than 45 feet wide.

Though the city’s Department of Buildings found that the Fifth Street penthouse complied with the intent of the law, the Board of Standards and Appeals reversed the decision. It was one of the most publicized battles over the law, though developers have subsequently applied for variances to avoid the height restrictions. 

Now the Adams administration is considering changing or repealing the rule as part of a broader zoning text amendment designed to encourage office-to-residential conversions, according to sources familiar with the matter. 

Removing the sliver law from the zoning code would pave the way up to 65 million square feet of development and 95,000 housing units, the law firm Rosenberg & Estis estimates. 

Attorney Frank Chaney said that while the rule was introduced to encourage contextual construction, it now does the opposite — leading to buildings surrounded by considerably taller ones. The focus on the building’s width is somewhat arbitrary, he said. 

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“It seems an odd distinction to make,” he said. “A building is too tall regardless of whether it is wide or narrow. If it’s too tall, it’s too tall.”

But the law has its defenders.

Andrew Berman, executive director of Village Preservation, believes removing the restriction will result in slender, ultra-luxury housing. His preservation group opposed an earlier effort by the de Blasio administration to eliminate the sliver law as part of the 2016 Zoning for Quality and Affordability text amendment.

“This has long been the target of the real estate industry and their friends in City Hall,” Berman said. “There is such a premium being placed on allowing developers to build ever taller, skinnier towers.”

The sliver law states that a building with a street wall of less than 45 feet can only rise 100 feet or the equivalent of the width of the street the building faces, whichever is less. The measure was a response to a 1977 change that allowed air rights to be transferred to adjacent development sites, according to Chaney.

The law played a role in the 1993 thriller “Sliver.” The movie prominently features 211 Madison Avenue, a 32-story building constructed on a 33-foot lot. The tower avoided the law because its foundation was completed before the measure was implemented in 1983.

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