Up on the Roof: The Controversy

DOB was toying with the idea of changing zoning rules on outdoor spaces. Thank goodness they didn't.


Lucky are the office employees that have access to a rooftop terrace. The scenic views. The soothing greenery. The co-worker camaraderie.

Recently, however, a controversy over the viability of rooftop terraces in New York City threatened the future of the city’s coveted outdoor spaces. The issue was the New York City Department of Buildings’ (DOB) abrupt reinterpretation of a long-held zoning code on regulations associated with outdoor spaces. Suddenly, building owners who wanted to convert top levels of commercial and residential buildings into roof decks and terraces needed to prove that every tenant spaces were all enclosed. Talk about a drag.

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As a result, a mandated limit on the use of the outdoor terraces caused new and previously approved plans for roof terraces to suddenly be put on hold, jeopardizing comprehensive and costly projects, including those involving tenant moves that were decided, at least in part, on the firm’s ability to take advantage of a rooftop terrace.

Ouch. The situation hurt not only employees that looked forward to the park-like perk but also employers that wanted to use the amenity to help attract top-tier talent, as well as developers and landlords, both of whom saw rooftop terraces as a way to boost their building’s value and rent potential. In fact, at least one news outlet reported that the Real Estate Board of New York even urged the New York City DOB to reconsider its stance—which, as it turned out, it did. The revised building code interpretation now allows for outdoor spaces to house 74 or more people, as long as the certificate of occupancy is amended and there’re plans for proper egress in place. Better yet, spaces smaller than these are able to roll forward without pesky paperwork.

Rooftop terraces have been top of mind for quite some time. In 2014, I wrote about the increasing popularity of rooftop terraces, which, in four or five years, had become less of a luxury and more of a requisite feature for New York building owners looking to lure leaseholders. And why not? The feature provides a wonderful opportunity for employees to relax by taking in a breath of open air, along with sky views and greenery. They also provide a convenient spot for after-work socializing with fellow workmates. Some companies go so far as to work in gardening and other sustainable elements in the roof terrace’s design. The trend has been embraced by companies of all sizes, from boutique firms to multinationals.

I, for one, am glad the New York City DOB came to its senses. Rooftop terraces are part of what makes our city special, and as long as codes and safety guidelines are adhered to, there’s no reason for developers and building administration to engage in scuttlebutt and bang heads. Doing so wastes time and funds that could be better spent on creating beautiful places to enjoy than on lobbying efforts and attorney fees. Working with a qualified, experienced architect and a landscape designer can ensure permits are received, plans are properly executed and more time is spent enjoying green spaces.

That’s something landlords, tenants and, yes, likely even the New York City Department of Buildings will view as a plus. So, let’s relax a bit, cut the crackdown and get back to enjoying the outdoors before it gets too cold.


Scott E. Spector, AIA, is a principal at Spector Group, one of New York’s premier architecture and interior design firms and a leader in corporate tenant and building owner-based design. The award-winning company has affiliate offices nationally and internationally. To date, it has completed more than 2,000 projects.