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Gotham Gazette -- Land Use
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The Place for New York Policy and politics

Citizens Union

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Land Use
Topic Pages / Land Use


Internet resources for what you need to know on NYC Land Use/Zoning
Five Favorite Sites For Beginners

The Topic
"Land Use" refers to the processes by which alterations are made to the built environment and the principles and laws which govern these alterations. Such changes include construction, demolition or renovation of buildings, changes to streets and sidewalks, and designation of historic landmarks. A city's land use policies have far-reaching effects which delve into social, economic and political arenas. Eventually they are the ultimate arbiter of how a city develops. "Zoning" refers to New York City's Zoning Resolution - first passed in 1916 and overhauled in 1961 - that enumerates the rules for land use.
The Context
New York City has over 200,000 acres of land, and we fight over every square foot. The city's land use policies set the stage for that fight. Will there be parks? And where? How high can Donald Trump build? All these questions and more are relegated to the land use arena.
The Reporter
Joshua S. Trauner is a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with an S.B. in Political Science, and a former employee of NYC Parks & Recreation. Currently he is completing a Masters of Urban Planning at NYU's Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service.
The Archives
See past monthly updates for Land Use.

by Joshua S. Trauner

In The News:

(feb '00) An intriguing battle played out last month between City Hall and real estate developers over a large parcel of land on the East Side. Over the last year, a mostly-secret bidding war occurred over the development rights for the old Consolidated Edison steam plant aside the East River. ConEd no longer has use for this site just south of the UN, so the City brokered a deal. The Fisher family, one of the oldest and most low-profile of New York City's developers, seemed to have won. Then, at the last minute City Hall tried to pull the rug out from under them. Why? Part of their financing for the project involved investing municipal pension funds in non-municipal and diverse outlets - a decent idea. However, the plan was heavily endorsed by City Comptroller and 2001 Mayoral candidate Alan Hevesi, who had coincidentally received a large donation from the Fisher family. Forgetting, for the moment, that the Fishers had given far larger sums to Mayor Giuliani than to Hevesi over the years, City Hall threatened to nix the whole deal and give the development rights to the runner-up, Daily News publisher and ardent Giuliani supporter Mort Zuckerman. The Fisher family withdrew the pension fund plan, City Hall recanted, and the deal went through.

A fascinating political drama. The public usually doesn't see any of this kind of wheeling and dealing in the general press, and even in this instance, it appeared that there was far more back-room talk than ever made it into the papers. It is rare that land use and politics collide head-on so violently, but this is a special year (read: election). On the political side, the Mayor is engaged in what will likely be the most watched Senate race in the country and the best New York political story in decades. On the land use side, this is a golden opportunity in what is now the tightest real estate market ever (doesn't it always seem that way?):

The parcel of land is a crown jewel and a developer's dream: one of the largest lots left in Manhattan south of 96th St. with spectacular riverfront views (which up until now were reserved for steam tower maintenance workers). It could have an even greater impact on the New York Skyline than Trump's East Side Tower will have. It is no surprise that the Mayor played hardball, and then got what he wanted - even the appearance of supporting a Hevesi plan was too much for him. The Fishers were wise enough not to let that appearance sabotage this deal. Let us hope that they use this wise judgement while planning the project and create something on the site that will be positive addition to the City's landscape.

Josh Sounds Off:

A first review of the "Unified Bulk Program" a.k.a. Zoning Reform provides few surprises. It puts forth most everything that City Planning Commissioner Rose said it would in his speech last April. A few points of interest: * One of the most quickly condemned parts of Rose's speech was the design review board. The body could permit the construction of a non-conforming building if it was deemed to have exceptional design. This concept has made it to the executive summary of the UBF (where the board is downgraded to a "review process") but no specifics are found in the actual proposal. I am not as quick to condemn this concept as the architects were, but more important than its existence are the specifics of the process. These details are not given. Look for them in future elaborations. * The UBF's core proposals encompass only 40 pages (with pictures). Hurrah! Now that's tidy. * No mention is made of waterfront redevelopment issues and the troubles with rezoning unused manufacturing space in these areas. This is a separate issue that could take place outside of zoning reform, but one should take advantage of inertia where one finds it. * For all that could be criticized, I'd like to step back and just marvel that this is occurring at all. Zoning is one of the driest public policy issues out there and reform of this order only happens once every other generation. Let's hope that the momentum continues and that it does happen.


Josh's Favorite Five Sites For Beginners:

  • NYC Department of Planning - The official City site, and much better than you might expect from a government agency. Complete text of the Zoning Resolution (a hard copy would run you $400+) and downloadable zoning maps. Find out what zone you live in!
  • Regional Plan Association - The venerable and still influential pro-planning organization. Particularly good for information on big-item controversies, e.g. Governor's Island. Second Avenue subway, anti-sprawl legislation. Check out their recently unveiled MetroLink proposal and the Gowanus Tunnel Study.
  • NY Metro APA - Tri-state focus, with rich info on patterns of municipal interdependence. Good online newsletter searchable by topic. See summary of Governor Whitman's new open-space legislation.
  • NYU's Urban Planning Links Page - This page is chock full of great land use links which focus both on NYC and the USA.


Other Recommendations:

  • "The Cultivator by Martin Filler" - A fascinatingly critical article about Fredrick Law Olmsted and what's wrong with Witold Rybczynski's new biography of him. From The New Republic.
  • Municipal Arts Society - A good place for theory and practice on public spaces, public art, and architectural preservation. 
  • New York Landmarks Preservation - Packed with information on preservation and restoration of landmarked buildings.
  • Pace Law School Center for Land Use - Excellent introduction to land use issues by a leading academic think tank. Check out the "Land Use for Local Leaders" section.
  • Van Alen Institute - An immense amount of information on current and future NYC land use issues. Start with the well organized, user-friendly contents page and then zero in on your prime concern.

Visit the Topic Archives!


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Gotham Gazette is published by Citizens Union Foundation and is made possible by support from the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Altman Foundation,the Fund for the City of New York and donors to Citizens Union Foundation. Please consider supporting Citizens Union Foundation's public education programs. Critical early support to Gotham Gazette was provided by the Charles H. Revson Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

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