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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

by Joshua S. Trauner

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.

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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

In The News:

Well, it seems like out of nowhere, the redevelopment of the waterfront has become a prime issue for the City of New York. Highlighted by last month's Waterfront Conference, but on the table for years, remains the question of what to do with New York's hundreds of miles of waterfront. The issue is slowly inching into the public arena. Many issues of waterfront development are at stake:

  • ZONING. Much of the waterfront is still zoned for manufacturing and commerce that have disappeared. Though this space would be better served as residential or recreational, there is neither pressure nor funds to rezone. Strict federal requirements on waterfront construction and state control of much of the waterfront adds layers of red tape that hinder construction. (Not to mention that cleaner water in the harbor is bringing back marine borer worms which have accelerated the deterioration of the already crumbling piers.)
  • ENVIRONMENT. The traditional antagonism between greens and developers persists, though the recent negotiations over the Hudson River Park indicate a shift away from this opposition. Park advocates want commercial-free open space, developers want private buildings and pols want sustainable (read: not city-maintained) parks. There is room for compromise here, but it is coming slowly.
  • INFRASTRUCTURE. Bringing more people to the waterfront on a regular basis will expose other problems which have quietly existed all the time: noxious uses like using piers for "marine transfer stations" a.k.a. garbage barges and municipal storage garages and private parking facilities on piers. Physical structure issues, too, like the continued decaying of wooden piers due to the marine borer worms (once a pier collapses it becomes even more expensive to rebuild).
  • PUBLIC/PRIVATE. Who should control the waterfront once it is redeveloped? A public trust like the Hudson River Park Conservancy? A private organization like the Guggenheim which wants to build waterfront museum all over the City? Or NYC Parks & Recreation, the traditional steward of parkland in the city?

Keep an eye out for how the Brooklyn Bridge Park Coalition and the Hudson River Park Coalition progresses with their plans for expansive parks on former industrial waterfront, and how the search for a deep-draft container port plays out. These will be some of the first arenas where precedent will be set.

Other Recommendations:

  • Cityscape Institute - An influential group with a disappointingly meager website. Good section on land use publications.
  • Design Trust - A solid organization devoted to NYC design issues. 
  • Donald Trump - So sue me: the man represents something or other about the age we live in. Besides, did you know that The Donald's father (Fred Trump) made his money on government-subsidized low-middle-income housing in the suburbs?
  • 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.

Josh Sounds Off:

City Planning Commissioner Joseph Rose promised in a speech back in April that he would be initiating the process of reforming NYC's unwieldy and often-illogical zoning regulation. This is needed and long overdue. In that speech he generally outlined what he felt was wrong with our current zoning resolution and where he felt changes should be made. He promised by September that these proposals would be out and ready for public review. It is now November and we haven't seen or heard from Rose. Noise has been made that the proposals won't be rolled out until May, but no official word has come from DCP. The City needs these reforms and too much stalling seriously damages the chances of instituting them. It would be shame if this chance was lost due to political wrangling or partisan efforts of Rose's boss, the Mayor.

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