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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
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.
The Archives
See past monthly updates for Land Use.
by Tom Angotti

The Make-Up Of The Lower Manhattan Redevelopment Corporation

It does not look as if the diverse downtown communities will have much to say about plans to redevelop Lower Manhattan. The new 11-member commission named by Governor George Pataki and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to plan for the rebuilding of Lower Manhattan is top-heavy with business executives and City Hall insiders. Local community leaders, people who live and work in the area, and the victims of the economic fallout from September 11 are not included.

The governor named seven of the panel members and effectively retains control of the new body, named the Lower Manhattan Redevelopment Corporation. The authority is a subsidiary of the Empire State Development Corporation, headed by Pataki appointee Charles Gargano. It has the power to condemn land and override city land use regulations. In other words, it can thumb its nose at the city's new mayor and city council.

Four of the appointees to the new body are from the banking and financial services sectors. Two are from the ranks of Giuliani staffers who are wondering whether they will have a job after January 1. And another is a former Giuliani commissioner who is now a corporate executive.

The only representative from labor, Ed Malloy of the Building and Construction Trades Council, can be counted on to advocate any redevelopment that means more jobs for the limited and exclusive membership of the building trades. But no one represents the 80,000 workers who lost their jobs after September 11 or the 80,000 whose work has been cut back. Most of them are or were in the service unions, and many were not unionized at all. Many are immigrants whose access to relief and services has been limited.

Only one of the nominees, Madelyn Wils, Chair of Community Board 1, represents the directly affected neighborhoods. Portions of Community Board 2 were also heavily impacted but they are not represented. Absent are representatives from Lower Manhattan's diverse residential community, which includes Tribeca, Battery Park City and Chinatown. Absent are representatives of the families of the victims, who have a stake in shaping any memorial planned for the site and its surroundings.


Pataki's move might give one the impression that the governor is moving swiftly to support redevelopment of lower Manhattan after the September 11 disaster. However, John Whitehead, chairman of the new development corporation, made the point that "How quickly its done is not the primary concern. We want it to be done right." This makes the naming of the directors look more like a timely move to preempt any initiatives taken by Mayor-elect Michael Bloomberg, who during his campaign stated that an independent authority was not needed. Most estimates are it will take five to ten years to redevelop the area. If there is no big rush, then why move so quickly to name an authority?

In the early days after September 11, downtown property owners, particularly Larry Silverstein, who owns the lease on the World Trade Center site, talked loudly about the need to reconstruct the financial district and the twin towers as speedily as possible as a defiant symbol of resistance against terrorism. There was talk of the need to override local land use and environmental rules. It soon became clear that it would take at least a year to clean up the site and many more to rebuild. In his election campaign Fernando Ferrer suggested that this was an opportunity to strengthen business districts outside of Lower Manhattan, a strategy that would help keep businesses from moving out of the city. Mayor-elect Bloomberg appears to share that view.

Cries were also heard from the residents and businesses in Lower Manhattan. They noted that Wall Street was just one of several parts of an evolving mixed-use community including over 100,000 residents, thousands of retailers, schools, parks and a network of community services. Over the last decade, thousands of vacant office units were converted to residential use, a response to the enormous commercial vacancy rate. In Tribeca, industrial buildings were converted to residential units. Before rushing to create new office space, it would be best to consider the millions of square feet of vacant office space that followed construction of the World Trade Center in the 1970s. Would it make sense to once again build for a market that never was there in the first place?


Will the Lower Manhattan Redevelopment Corporation be able to create a plan that makes sense to all those concerned about the future of the downtown? From the solitude of their office towers, can the appointed commissioners hear the diverse voices and build consensus? Or will they plunge ahead and use the exceptional powers granted by the governor to implement their own plans?

Is it too much to hope that the governor will name more directors and bring in leaders with roots in the affected communities to coordinate the planning efforts? Because everyone now recognizes the need to rebuild Lower Manhattan in the context of a comprehensive plan, the Authority could sponsor a broad public process that brings in all sectors of the community to develop a vision and strategy for the area. This should be coordinated by Community Boards 1 and 2, and the mechanism should be Section 197-a of the City Charter, which allows community boards to submit plans to the City Planning Commission and City Council for official approval. The redevelopment authority should pledge in advance to finance implementation of the projects that win consensus in the 197-a plan. This could have the effect of building consensus among the community's diverse sectors, and could minimize the inevitable expense and delays of conflict and litigation.

A 197-a plan for Lower Manhattan would help stimulate community planning throughout the city by setting a precedent of producing plans that get implemented. Up to now, communities have been reluctant to do 197-a plans because the city has made no commitment to help them or implement their recommendations. The plan for downtown Manhattan could be the first in a series of much-needed plans that engage diverse communities in plotting their futures.

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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