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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, who has a Masters in Urban Planning from NYU's Wagner School, is vice president of Real Capital Analytics, a new company creating a database of real estate transactions.
The Archives
See past monthly updates for Land Use.
by Joshua Trauner

The Plaza Bonus: Is it good policy?

(Feb '01) Zoning reform is still alive for now. Since the proposals have not been voted upon, it is still relevant to discuss the Uniform Bulk Proposal's points and what potential effects they might have.

A good way to view zoning from a policy perspective would be a set of "tools" which the city uses to shape development within its borders. A tool can be typified as a "carrot" (an incentive to do good) or a "stick" (a penalty to prevent from doing bad).

One tool being debated is the Plaza Bonus. This carrot created in the 1961 zoning resolution was an attempt to create more "open space" in a city then seen to be rapidly losing such space. The bonus essentially allowed developers that preserved public space at the ground level to build their building with more bulk (i.e. height) than zoning would ordinarily allow. The bonus ran up to 18 percent depending on circumstance. This bonus was part of the "tower in the park" philosophy that was prevalent among planners of that era.

There is an interesting aspect of plaza bonuses. The Seagram's Building is the example generally pointed to as a "good" tower with a "good" plaza that the Plaza Bonus tried to duplicate. However, the Seagram's Building was built before the plaza bonus was created and received no bonuses. All the towers on Sixth Avenue and the later ones on Park Avenue that many now think are "bad" were the ones that received bonus bulk. The example that spurred the rule was never satisfactorily repeated. Or to look at it another way, the city, as it often does, decided that if one is good then lots would be even better.

So should a tool with mixed results be scrapped?

Commissioner Rose and the Uniform Bulk Proposals say yes. The Commissioner has decided that the tool does not work it has allowed too much added bulk to the city without receiving enough in return. The Unified Bulk Proposal therefore seeks to eliminate the Plaza Bonus and end creation of public space within the city. However, there is another more moderate way to view the Plaza Bonus. Mere bad results are not enough to destroy as David Lutz commented in a recent "Issue of the Week" here on, just because the plaza bonus created bad public space we shouldn't do away with it. We should have better enforcement to keep spaces open and accessible. We should work to convert the bad spaces into good ones. We should have better oversight and make sure that new spaces created meet certain criteria. This may well be too much to ask of city government and an overburdened Buildings Department, but it shouldn't be. The last thing we should do is eliminate a tool which can create open space and preserve the public domain.

The result remains to be seen and the current situation produces an interesting quandary. If the Unified Bulk Proposal, a generally good proposal is accepted, the Plaza Bonus will go. However, if these much-needed reforms are tabled, the Bonus remains (though still under-enforced). We shall see which way it goes.

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 architecture, design, and land use. Most relevant: their coverage of the Zoning Reforms, and its accompanying informational booklet.
  • 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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