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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

Why Zoning Reform IS Important

(Jan '01) Though not totally dead yet, City Planning Commissioner Joe Rose's attempt to make much-needed reforms to New York City's 1961 Zoning Resolution are likely to fail. Last month, I tried to explain the political reasons why this was so. Now, I would like to explain why this is a shame - why we need these reforms.

The 1961 overhaul was based on misguided principles.
As William J. Stern explains in a recent article in City Journal: "At a time when New York manufacturing employment (much of it low-paying) was already beginning its long decline, [planners] zoned whole sections of the city for manufacturing. Thinking that the city's population was growing too quickly, they forbade residential development in industrial and commercial parts of the city, so that great swathes of the five boroughs, including much of the precious waterfront, is off-limits to would-be builders of apartments or of offices for twenty-first-century businesses."

This is still one of the major reasons waterfront development stagnates. But Stern continues: "And they wanted the city to embody the vision of the then-celebrated Swiss architect Le Corbusier, who favored giant, boxy towers isolated in big, open plazas, so they allowed builders to make their edifices taller, and so boost rental footage, if they set them back from the sidewalk and surrounded them with open space."

Le Corbusier's influence was felt across America in planning in the 1950's and 1960. Most planners decided his "tower in the park" vision was the answer for development, and blindly guided their planning in that direction. It wasn't until most of these buildings were completed that people (starting with Jane Jacobs) realized how awful this type of development was. The buildings were of an inhuman scale, inaccessible in both an aesthetic and an actual physical sense.

The 1961 Overhaul made Zoning too complex.
As Joe Rose said in his speech upon announcing the reforms: "many of the problems we confront in zoning today derive from tentative and haphazard attempts to correct some of the structural mistakes that were made in 1961. Our present regulatory morass is the result of hundreds of amendments that nibble at the flaws of the original document."

Rose is not the only one who feels this way, Norman Marcus has compared the 900-page Resolution to detritus on the bottom of a whale. A cottage industry of New York City zoning lawyer exists with the sole specialty of interpreting the code for developers. That is not, nor was it ever meant to be, the way zoning should function.

Commissioner Rose sums up these two issues: "Our current predicament is that our zoning resolution has a discredited underlying vision, tempered by a series of quick fixes of varying effectiveness, for a city that was mostly built under a completely different set of regulations. No wonder we're confused!"

So, it's pretty much agreed that there's a lot wrong with our current zoning resolution, but pointing to what's wrong is the easy part. The current status of reform shows that it is far from agreed if changes should be made, what those changes should be, and if those changes will ever happen.

By next month we'll know more, if the reforms are dead or alive. If they're dead, the window is closed. If they're alive, then for how much longer?

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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