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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
Five Favorite 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 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.

by Joshua S. Trauner

In The News: Commissioner Rose's Proposals

(jan '00) It's only a few months late, but City Planning Commission Joseph B. Rose has finally released his plans for zoning reform. The executive summary of the proposal, termed the "Unified Bulk Proposal," is available on the CPC site. The proposal states the need for updating zoning, explains how zoning works now, and presents its reform plan. It is a prelude to the 50+ page full document (which is downloadable form this page).

Read this document CAREFULLY. It is the most significant effort toward land-use reform in recent NYC history, and contains details about how zoning could be in the next century. By this time next year, we could have a new Zoning Resolution.

The reform proposals fall into the following categories: height and setback envelopes; split lots and zoning lot mergers; density controls; bonuses for public space; authorizations and special permits.

The overarching goals of the Unified Bulk Program are three:

  • Get rid of the "tower-in-the-park" ideal. When the Seagram's Building was built in the 1950s it was hailed as a revolution. City Planners thought that if one worked, then lots would be even better. The 1961 Zoning Resolution encouraged this form above all others, scarring NYC for generations to come. The reforms will formally roll back the emphasis on plaza buildings.
  • Prevent another Trump Residential Tower. Legal proceedings have confirmed that Trump's East Side tower (near the U.N.) was built in full accordance with zoning, but City Planning wants to prevent similar projects in the future. Under the current XR, these buildings will likely crop up.
  • Improve clarity and close loopholes. The current ZR is over 900 almost indecipherable pages. Only the cottage industry of land use specialists can hope to interpret it, and even then they're sometimes wrong. A builder should know from the outset the allowed uses for a piece of land from day one – not after negotiation.

    Much more in the coming months...

    Josh Sounds Off:

    A recent article in the New York Times highlighted the ever-chaotic process of planning for the Brooklyn Bridge Park. The park will likely extend from Pier 5 at Atlantic Ave at the border of Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill all the way to the Manhattan Bridge in the DUMBO/Fort Green neighborhood. It is extremely difficult to tell if this project is making any progress or not. There were reports of political squabbling over neighborhood representation on the board, race/class disputes re: future park facilities (active or passive recreation), and the Hudson River Park-like debate about the need for commercial enterprises for self-sustainability.

    The last point it the most intriguing. Why has is suddenly become a public mandate that new public space has to pay for itself? NYC Parks & Recreation has remained relatively quiet over the last 10 years while its budget and staff were slashed dramatically. But somehow, the overall state of our parks is much better today than in recent years, even without counting those parks with private organizations looking after them (i.e. the Central Park Conservancy).

    If there is one item that should be on the top of the list for public support it should be parkland; it will truly benefit the general citizenry . The Brooklyn Bridge Parks Development Corporation and New Yorkers alike should demand public support for this park- one that could be a signature park for the City and a boon for everyone. That would minimize the significant commercial intrusion which will result from the mandate of self-sustainability.

    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.

    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. 
    • Divided Highways - This is the website of the fascinating PBS documentary of the creation of the Interstate Highway System. Perhaps no other city has felt the negative effects of highway construction more than New York City. This site chronicles both the good and bad of what is the largest public works project in history.
    • 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.

    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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