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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
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
Tom Angotti is professor and chairman at the Pratt Institute Graduate Center for Planning and the Environment, co-chair of Planners Network and a member of the Municipal Art Society Task Force on community-based planning.

Nancy Biberman, head of the Women's Housing & Economic Development Corporation, is on the steering committee of Imagine New York.

The Archives
See past monthly updates for Land Use.
by Nancy Biberman, Guest Columnist

Rebuilding Can Become A Lesson In Diversity And Democracy

Thirty years ago, the site of what was to become the World Trade Center was, as it is today, ablaze with light, rock crushers and drills pounding away in an effort to excavate a foundation about six times as large as that of the average skyscraper in Manhattan. It was an audacious and unprecedented engineering feat.

The construction of the twin towers was also a deeply controversial political feat. A state governmental authority condemned 164 buildings -- retail stores, the hub of the "hi-fi" district, office buildings, residences and even a pet store. This did not sit well with many New Yorkers, despite this city's fascination with "capitalism's cathedrals." There were protests; lawsuits dragged on; and lore has it that even after the pet store had been demolished, a lone monkey escaped and built a nest in a pile of beams, stealing enough bananas from a local fruit stand to stave off the bulldozers for months. Humankind's supposedly inferior ancestor, then, held out the longest against the forces that built two towers, each 110 stories high, that were to "grace" lower Manhattan for a mere 30 years.

Why is it important to recall the not-so-distant past as today's workers unearth human remains from what we now call Ground Zero and what the towers' engineers called the bathtub? Because a new generation of politicians, developers, businessmen and real estate moguls may again take it upon themselves to decide what to build and how high to build it. However, today, in the wake of September's ferocious attack, New York's diverse human chorus is demanding to be heard. The condemned property of 30 years ago was condemned again, though this time in a way for which we are still in mourning. But this time, how to build is not a matter to be left to developers. For today, we must collectively decide how a civilized people should treat the soil upon which such a deliberate and grievous taking of life occurred. Fifty years from now, how will we want the world to remember what happened to New York City on September 11, 2001?

Perhaps the most important legacy we can leave is the creation of an open and inclusive decision-making process. And at first blush, it surely appears that a plethora of organizations and coalitions are talking and designing, issuing position papers and creating websites. Yet in all these months when good will and funds have flowed into the city, the opportunities for genuine civic participation have been few.

While elected officials and members of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation give assurances that comments from all will be considered, there is no apparent structure for that to actually take place. Perhaps more alarming, it appears that even the mayor has limited say in what the priorities for the rebuilding effort will be. An article in the New York Times recently noted, "Mr. Bloomberg has more authority to suspend alternate-side-of-the-street parking regulations than in determining the course of what happens on the tract of land just south of City Hall."

Recently, Mayor Bloomberg was allotted three new appointments to the redevelopment corporation. Yet the business community and former City Hall staff still dominate the group; there is just one representative from labor, one African American, and one who actually lives in Lower Manhattan. Not a single Latino, nor an Asian, holds a seat on this corporation's board, the latter a particularly egregious omission considering the devastating impact of the attack on Chinatown.

True diversity and democracy in the rebuilding process is not a matter of political correctness. It goes to the heart of our city. Some might argue with this: Don't we have planners for planning; architects for designing; builders for building; and business people for analyzing the economics of it all? Wouldn't genuine public input just slow things down, be inconvenient and messy? But the reasons for an inclusive process are abundant and the means to do so are straightforward and already in place.

American history is the story of increasing public enfranchisement, an explicit acknowledgement that the inclusion of ordinary people (like women and blacks, for example) are essential to democracy. Anyone who has ever attended a community board meeting in this city knows that ordinary (e.g. non-credentialed) people, of whatever stripe, have a lot to say about the built environment. They talk about environmental issues; they demand employment for the unemployed; they envision parks and beauty; and, when asked, they ponder memorialization. Residents of even the most disenfranchised communities are passionate and vocal when asked about matters that affect their lives. And ordinary people, for generations to come, will be the true "end-users" of whatever the experts plan for lower Manhattan. This entire region was attacked on September 11, and the views of people from the boroughs to the suburbs should inform the master planning process of the rebuilding authority.

Of course, planners should plan, architects should design, and a serious analysis of the viability of new businesses and the retention of existing businesses must be the subject of study and negotiation at the highest levels of city government. But these "experts" should not be working in a vacuum devoid of input from ordinary people. Robert Moses may have built beautiful bridges and parks without community input, but those who invoke his name should remember as well that his city highway construction (without community input) devastated the Bronx and the lives of its residents for decades.

An inclusive and democratic process need not be endless. There are means already in place to allow for wide participation in the vision, design and planning process.

Since November, the Municipal Art Society has been working with 30 other groups from the city and nearby suburbs to put together a project called Imagine New York. Hundreds of people have been trained, a web site is up, materials have been prepared, and 200 different places around the city have been booked for workshops that will take place throughout the month of April.

This past week, Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields declared April29 as Imagine NY day; and she has asked each community board in Manhattan to play host to simultaneous workshops on that day.

The other borough presidents could do the same, as could county executives in affected communities on Long Island, Westchester and New Jersey.

An analysis of the themes and products of the workshops will be completed during May and June, at which time a final report will be delivered to the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation.

Armed with this massive community input, the work of the corporation planners could begin, and a master plan developed. (Victims' families should be offered a similar process, perhaps part of Imagine NY, so that their voices and visions will be a unique part of the input process.)

After the plan has been developed, the final review process occurs. And for this, New York City has a land use review process that has been the law for decades, delegating authority to ordinary people who sit on community boards and who regularly approve or modify major changes in land use in their communities -- like parks, waste disposal sites, homeless shelters, large developments, re-zonings..

For the final plan produced by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, the community review process can be executed simply and in a coordinated fashion. (A chart showing the process is available in pdf format) Each community board is required to review and comment within a fixed number of days; the plan then goes to each borough president for review; the plans from the five borough presidents are then delivered to the City Planning Commission for revision or approval; if approved, on to the City Council; then finally to the mayor of the city (and sometimes, if the mayor disapproves, back to the City Council to override the mayor's veto). And this is where it properly resides. The mayor, the members of the City Council, and the borough presidents are THE elected officials in New York City; they and their designees on the community boards are the only people who possess the legal authority and the responsibility to review and approve major projects in this city.

Since the land on which the towers stood is the property of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, a parallel final review process could be established for the immediate affected region, for "Greater" New York," the home of so many of the victims of the attack.

Some might argue that since the clean-up is moving more quickly than anyone expected, a master plan needs to be developed in a hurry. Fortunately, this is not the case. The governor, the mayor and the chairman of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation have all cautioned that rebuilding will not be completed for many years. There is time for community input.

While the planes managed to demolish capitalism's cathedrals, we should not compound the tragedy by allowing them to destroy our democratic values as well. It would be sad if the rebuilding is the result of a rushed and closed process. Instead, we have the opportunity to create a remarkable civics lesson. The museum that will inevitably be built downtown would include the story of how democracy worked in the process of rebuilding New York.


Sites For Beginners:

  • How Zoning Works - An overview of zoning: its definition, purpose and implementation in NYS and NYC. This primer also explains who has authority to make which decisions, with accompanying laws and citations. Excellent.
  • NYC Department of Planning - The official City site. Not frequently updated, but a good repository for official New York City Land Use documents. Find the complete text of the Zoning Resolution (a hard copy would run you $400+) and downloadable zoning maps. Find out which 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 MetroLink proposal and the Gowanus Tunnel Study.
  • NY Metro APA - A small site for the local chapter of the national professional organization: American Planning Association.
  • Municipal Arts Society - A great place for all things regarding New York planning, architecture and design. Most relevant: the just released Briefing Book of Community-Based Plans available to download, which offers for the first time ever a comprehensive look at the sometimes spotty, sometimes inspired plans for (and from) each neighborhood across the city, complete with maps and community contact information.
  • 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:

  • Air Rights - An old Gotham Gazette Issue of the Week, still relevant and interesting, though a slightly arcane Land Use topic.
  • Tenant Net - A great source for NYC real estate, if slightly biased toward the leassee.
  • "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.
  • New York Landmarks Preservation - Packed with information on preservation and restoration of landmarked buildings.
  • New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission - The Official City site for landmarks preservation.
  • 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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