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Gotham Gazette -- Land Use
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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

Zoning Is Not Enough

(July '01) Most people are unaware of the complicated regulations that govern where people can build and what they can build -- until they actually try to build something. Then they find out that zoning matters.

However, when it comes to planning the future of the city, zoning does not matter. City planning officials in New York City rely on zoning as the preferred tool for land use planning. But in practice zoning has proven to be a very weak tool, inadequate to deal with the many problems confronting the city.

The Zoning Resolution

In New York City, the massive three-volume Zoning Resolution is a catalog of regulations that carves up the land in the city into separate zones and prescribes the kinds of activities allowed in those zones. The three main categories are Residential, Commercial and Manufacturing. Some zones are overlaid on others, so that commercial uses can be permitted in some residential zones, for example. Within each category the zoning code governs how much you can build (the maximum floor area), and it may tell you how that floor area must be distributed on your plot of land, including how tall your building can be. The City Planning Department is the caretaker of the Zoning Resolution and from time to time proposes changes.

Building regulations, separate from the Zoning Resolution, govern materials, utilities and methods of construction. The Department of Buildings administers these regulations.

Zoning can make a big difference in the form and function of the city. By permitting only single-family homes in parts of Staten Island, for example, zoning maintains the low density characteristic of that borough. By prohibiting new residential construction in most manufacturing districts, it helps preserve these areas for industry. Zoning can also influence the design of buildings. The wedding-cake look of some skyscrapers, and the public open space on the ground floor, are often the result of restrictions or incentives written in the zoning code.

It is often stated by planners in the city that zoning is the city's master plan - the prescription for the future development and preservation of the city and its neighborhoods.

Why It Doesn't Matter

But even though zoning helps shape the future, a look at its history tells us that the zoning regulations mostly developed in reaction to development and not the other way around. It is a better tool for stopping or excluding some development than it is for directing development. It encourages us to say what we do not want but it does not encourage us to say what we do want.

The NYC Zoning Resolution was created in 1916. It was the first in the nation, a path-breaking attempt to control the rapidly developing metropolis. This was a time when the city faced an historic opportunity to plan for the entire region. Only 18 years after the consolidation of the five boroughs into the City of New York, most urban development was concentrated in Manhattan, with a few nascent centers in the other boroughs. There were still active farms in the city. A long-range plan that attempted to concentrate new growth in each of the boroughs, coordinated with the new subway system, could well have preserved many of the green areas in the city.

Unfortunately, the long-range and comprehensive planning approach was discarded in favor of zoning. The principle stimulus for zoning came from retailers on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan who wanted to limit the expansion of manufacturing around their elite shopping strip. Other downtown property owners were upset that the sprouting skyscrapers would overshadow their buildings and lower their value. While zoning in Manhattan put up barriers to industry, large parts of the other boroughs allowed a mixture of residential, commercial and industrial uses, with little care for the public health ramifications of these mixtures.

Zoning Changes for Developers

The Zoning Resolution did little to shape the relatively low-density development in the boroughs or preserve diminishing open space. Today, New York City has the lowest ratio of open space per capita of any major city in the country. As time went on, the zoning map was revised to allow new speculative land development as elected officials satisfied their favorite industry, the real estate industry.

In 1961, the Zoning Resolution was revised. The revision incorporated all of the changes that had occurred in the city's landscape since 1916. It eliminated the mixed-use zones and introduced bonuses (extra floor area) for developers in Manhattan who created ground floor plazas. The vision of the future city underlying this comprehensive change in zoning was one of expansion and development throughout the city. The planners foresaw new growth in residential, commercial and industrial uses.

This latest revision was as exclusionary in its approach as the original zoning. It kept the silk stocking residential districts free from industry, bus depots, waste facilities and other infrastructure no one wants in their neighborhoods. It created exclusive industrial enclaves in some of the mixed-use districts outside Manhattan. And it preserved the low-density sprawl in many of the residential neighborhoods at the city's outer edges.

Some of the big mistakes in the 1961 zoning have been partially corrected. Regulations that require that new building fit the existing neighborhood context have passed in many areas. New mixed-use zoning that could maintain the integration of housing and industry was introduced. However, most zoning changes still respond to the immediate needs of real estate developers and not necessarily to the long-range needs of neighborhoods and the city. Much new development is still out of scale, open space is still in short supply, and noxious infrastructure is still excluded from the wealthy districts and, in a clear demonstration of the discriminatory nature of much zoning, is concentrated in low-income communities of color.

Needed: Planning and Zoning

Zoning is one among many tools that can be used for land use planning. If it is the only tool, it does not work very well.

I am not suggesting that the city's planners should create a grandiose master plan to prescribe the future of the city. New York City is already too large and complex to be entrusted to an elite group of bureaucrats sitting in a Manhattan office. Giant plans also have a way of sitting on shelves. The best alternative is to start planning at the neighborhood level, in partnership with communities, many of whom already have clear ideas about the future of the city. The city's planners should support and coordinate planning in all of the city's diverse neighborhoods and strive for an inclusionary vision of the future, one that brings people together instead of driving them apart.

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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