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Gotham Gazette -- Land Use
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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.

Brad Lander is the executive director of the Fifth Avenue Committee, a community development organization in Brooklyn. Laura Wolf-Powers is getting a PhD at Rutgers University's Department of Urban Planning and Policy Development, and teaches at the New School University.

The Archives
See past monthly updates for Land Use.
by Brad Lander

Why the Port Authority Does Not Own The Airports Already

The recently proposed "swap" of the city-owned land under LaGuardia and JFK airports for the World Trade Center site, owned by Port Authority of NY/NJ, was met - in the day or two before politics set in - with a surprising amount of initial support. This was due partly to a feeling that the city would be more sensitive to the desire of New Yorkers for a more dramatic, mixed-use plan than the six proposed last month. In addition, the idea was well received because, well, it makes intuitive sense. Shouldn't the Port Authority own two of the region's largest (air)ports instead of the city's largest office complex?

So how did it happen that the Port Authority does not own the airports, but instead leases them from the city? Or that it owns the World Trade Center, which is not a port use? The history and politics of competition for land ownership between New York City and the Port Authority date back more than 60 years. Long before there were rumors of political conflict between NYC Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff and Port Authority Vice Chair Charles Gargano, there was a far more open battle between two titans of public real estate development in New York City - Robert Moses and Austin Tobin.

Students of land use in New York City are familiar with Robert Moses through Robert Caro's classic, The Power Broker. Moses is presented there as the most powerful man of our time in the City and State of New York, building an extraordinary roster of bridges, tunnels, highways, parks, housing, and other public works in an extraordinary reign from the 1930s to the late 1960s. Moses' great tool was the public authority - a quasi-governmental agency, whose members are generally appointed by elected officials, but whose records are often private, and which can issue bonds outside of the city or state's debt limit. As a result, authorities can "self-finance" projects that will generate revenues, like a toll-bridge. The authority issues bonds (through investment banks) to pay for the construction, and then pays the bonds off through toll collection. Once the bonds are paid off, the tolls keep going to the authority, making possible more borrowing and massive projects. Because Moses was able to keep the toll revenues and was shielded from scrutiny by the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, he was able to triumph over community opposition and political opponents at nearly every turn.

But one of Moses' great losses - his fight for control of LaGuardia Airport - was at the hands of the region's other great, albeit less storied, public authority man - Austin Tobin. As executive director of the Port Authority of New York (though it was always a bi-state agency, New Jersey was not added to its name until 1972), Tobin oversaw the building of the Staten Island-New Jersey bridges, the Lincoln Tunnel, Newark Airport, the Port Authority Bus Terminal, and the World Trade Center.

The Port Authority was created in 1921 as a bi-state agency to ensure "faithful collaboration in the future planning and development of the port of New York," and empowered to construct, purchase, or operate "any terminal or transportation facility" over hundreds of square miles. (This cooperation, of course, was never easy - in fact, the impetus for the creation of the Port Authority was the 1916 settlement by the Interstate Commerce Commission of a lawsuit between New York and New Jersey rail cartels.) For its first twenty years, the leadership of the Port Authority was satisfied with building a few bridges and tunnels, and subsequently sought "to retire debt in all haste." That changed when Tobin took over in 1942.

One of Tobin's first goals was to take control of New York's airports. LaGuardia and JFK - like most public works and nearly all airports up to that time - were not originally built as "fee-generating," but as "loss leaders." They were funded out of tax dollars, and generally operated at a loss, in order to support local businesses and municipal prestige. LaGuardia Airport - built by New York City and the Federal Works Progress Administration as one of the largest New Deal projects - was championed by Fiorello LaGuardia, who apocryphally refused to deplane at Newark (the region's only commercial airport before 1939) when his ticket read "destination: New York." LaGuardia did not want to allow Newark Airport to dominate air travel. With La Guardia Airport nearing capacity scant years after its completion in 1939, Mayor LaGuardia and Robert Moses began building JFK (originally Idlewild) in 1942.

But it was quickly clear that the city could not afford to maintain and upgrade the airports, with massive and competing postwar priorities. Moses proposed control by his City Airport Authority, to prevent the Port Authority from charging across the river. He argued much like Mitchell Moss (an NYU professor and Bloomberg campaign adviser) earlier this month: "New York cannot afford to lose its airports, which are the most vital gateway we have to the world. The Port Authority will expand Newark Airport and connect it to Port Elizabeth, doing to our airports what they've already done to our seaports."

But Tobin countered that a comprehensive, regional port plan - linking air and seaports - was needed. With fewer constraints and more borrowing capacity than Moses, Tobin was able to prevail with a much larger plan for the capital investments needed. The city retained ownership, but signed a 50-year lease for both airports with the Port Authority in 1947. In the early years, this took a substantial burden off of the city, which had been losing money on the airports. The Port Authority renegotiated with the airlines, created a national Airport Operators Council, added stores and restaurants, and effectively invented modern (and profitable) airport management. Giuliani sought to reopen the entire debate, briefly advocating the dismantling of the Port Authority and the return of NYC's airports to Moses' City Airport Authority. Ironically, his ultimate renegotiation was widely criticized as too favorable to the Port Authority, which generated $170 million in net revenue from the airports in 2001, but has only paid an average annual lease of $23 million over the past decade.

The history of the World Trade Center, whose beginnings lie in 1947, the same year the airport lease was signed, has received more attention since September 11th (the Museum of the City of New York has one good short history). While originally envisioned as a way of saving the ports of New York City by centralizing the ancillary port functions of trade, logistics, and finance, the final version offered little more to the ports than a good view. Nonetheless, the Downtown Lower Manhattan Association recruited Tobin and the Port Authority to build the project, since no bank would lend to a private developer for so massive a project, and a public authority could cut through zoning and regulatory requirements. New Jersey's support was purchased through the Port Authority takeover of the money-losing PATH trains and the development of container ports in Elizabeth (which capped and sealed the decline of New York City as a seaport). Despite the concerns of his general counsel that such a large real-estate development project might violate the Port Authority's charter, and of staff that the trade center had little to do with improving the region's position in international trade, Tobin championed the project which would come to stand - with fateful consequences - as a symbol of the dominance of the New York region throughout the globe.

As in 1937, 1947, and 1967, many signature land use projects today are developed by public agencies. What do we learn from this history that might be useful in thinking about the redevelopment of lower Manhattan? First, the politics of lower Manhattan, the harbor, and the airport are inseparable from competition between New York and New Jersey to control regional development. Second, there is a tension between our desire for meaningful public input and the belief that such projects should be shielded from politics and patronage. Third, to understand public development in New York, we must look beyond the individuals we have elected, and scrutinize the public authorities behind them, and the bondholders and leaseholders to whom they are often accountable. Fourth, these powerful individuals and institutions often seek to hoard and build power, and they can dictate terms that put their own bottom line, or their own legacy, ahead of other concepts of the public good - like city services, neighborhood quality-of-life, public transportation, or affordable housing. Sometimes, though, out of this serpentine process of politics and planning, remarkable public works are generated that capture our imagination and shape our beliefs about what is possible in the future. And sometimes (as with New Yorkers' response to the first six plans for Ground Zero), citizens' voices can influence what public development will look like, and perhaps even whose interests it will serve.

For interested readers, the definitive studies of Moses and Tobin are:

The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert Caro (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974)

Empire on the Hudson: Entrepreneurial Vision and Political Power and the Port of New York Authority by Jameson W. Doig (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001).

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.

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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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