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Gotham Gazette -- Land Use
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Gotham Gazette

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
Joshua S. Trauner recently received his Masters of Urban Planning degree from NYU's Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service.
The Archives
See past monthly updates for Land Use.
by Joshua Trauner

In the News: The Death of Zoning Reform?

(Dec '00) After months of inactivity and indecision, most of the city's major publications and insiders have come to the conclusion that City Planning Commissioner Joe Rose's plans to update the Zoning Resolution are dead.

The plan, known as the Unified Bulk Proposal (UBP), would have streamlined New York City's Zoning Resolution, last updated in 1961, and now horrendously out of date. It would have removed the "plaza bonus" which was responsible for many misused and unappealing public spaces. It would have limited heights in most areas, a response to Trump's World Tower, near the United Nations. It would have modernized zoning.

But that chance is generally considered to be over now. City Planning extended a November 8 deadline for voting on the proposal to January, and it is expected that in January the plan will be voted down. Some reasons given:

Commissioner Rose's personal announcement of the plan was a slight to Mayor Giuliani. The last official in the Giuliani administration to take any credit for anything was William Bratton and he was promptly fired. When Rose went public without the mayor present, he doomed the proposal to failure. The Mayor has never made any public comment on the plan, which is interpreted as non-support or even opposition. Any mayoral support whatsoever might have given the UBP a chance.

This powerful interest group of developers initially reserved judgment and even mildly encouraged Roses' efforts. However, once the heat died down, the Real Estate Board of New York and Bernard Mendik (a former city official and longtime friend of the mayor) lobbied heavily against the Uniform Bulk Proposals. Developers hated the set height limits outside of the central business district. Since this area is fully built already, this would severely curtail potential larger developments in other areas (like Long Island City, other areas of Queens, Brooklyn, and Upper Manhattan). Ultimately, developers love predictability and the Uniform Bulk Proposal was completely unpredictable. To these people a known evil is preferable to a potentially good unknown.

Though one of the most important issues in Municipal affairs, Zoning is one of the most arcane and unsexy of topics. Even though the current zoning resolution is outdated, inefficient, and desperately in need of revision or wholesale replacement, no one cares.

Maybe some day there will be a new zoning resolution which will be sensible and serve all interests: public and private, but that day is not today.

Sites For Beginners:

  • Municipal Arts Society - A great place for all things regarding New York architecture, design, and land use. Most relevant: their coverage of the Zoning Reforms, and its accompanying informational booklet.
  • 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:

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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