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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.

Brad Lander is the executive director of the Fifth Avenue Committee, a community development organization in Brooklyn. Laura Wolf-Powers is getting a PhD at Rutgers University's Department of Urban Planning and Policy Development, and teaches at the New School University.

The Archives
See past monthly updates for Land Use.
by Brad Lander

Olympic Planning

At the end of June, New York City will have its final audition with the United States Olympic Committee to be the U.S. nominee for the 2012 Olympic Games. Olympic experts give increasing odds that NYC will get the nod when the committee announces its selection this fall. This is partially in response to September 11th, but mostly on the strength of the plan submitted by NYC 2012 (the not-for-profit organization that prepared the bid), New York's role as an international city, and the leadership of Dan Doctoroff, now deputy mayor for economic development. NYC is seen as the only American city that has a chance at being awarded the games by the International Olympic Committee, although this is still a long shot.

Assuming that NYC is the U.S. nominee -- whether or not it is ultimately selected to host the Games -- the Olympics will dominate city planning energy for at least Mayor Michael Bloomberg's first term. The city will need to show significant progress before 2005 (when the international committee announces its decision) in order to be competitive. Much of this planning would shape future development, whether or not the Games are held here. So it's a good time to take a look at the NYC 2012 plan and how it would reshape the city.

NYC 2012's plan for Olympic facilities, accommodations, and transportation is impressive in its scope, vision, and creativity. (Its primary author, Alexander Garvin, is now leading the planning work for Ground Zero). In addition to making possible a highly functional Olympics, it has the potential to completely reshape several neighborhoods and to transform many acres of underused waterfront. The legacy of these plans would be vastly improved parklands and athletic facilities, waterfront access, and commercial development.

It is less clear how the plan, in its current form, would share economic benefits with the majority of low- to moderate-income, working-class New Yorkers. In light of skyrocketing real estate values (especially near any body of water), a shrinking supply of affordable housing, ongoing displacement, a school overcrowding crisis, and the ongoing loss of blue collar jobs that once sat on many of the proposed Olympic sites, more needs to be done to make this not only a visionary plan, but an equitable one.

The NYC 2012 Game Plan

The "Olympic X" plan ingeniously locates all athletic facilities for competition along two intersecting transit axes -- one water, one rail -- so Olympians reach their venues without fighting traffic or crowded subways. The Harlem and East rivers form the north-south axis. Special high speed Olympic ferries would connect athletes to volleyball in Coney Island, field hockey at the northern tip of Manhattan, archery in Williamsburg, baseball in Yankee Stadium, and cycling in St. George, Staten Island. Existing commuter lines from Flushing Meadows, across Queens and Manhattan, and into New Jersey (terminating at the Meadowlands) would be enhanced to form an exclusive Olympic rail system on the east-west axis. The axes would cross at the Olympic Village, created at Queens West, across the East River from the United Nations.

The Olympic stadium would be built on the far West Side, as part of the commercial redevelopment of "Midtown West" premised on the extension of the Number 7 train. The "Framework for Development" approved last year by the City Planning Commission would create new office towers (20 million square feet of new office and retail space, as big as 10 Empire State Buildings), a stadium (for the Olympics, the Jets, or exhibition space for the Javits Convention Center, take your pick), hotels, and parks. The NYC 2012 plan also envisions an eight-acre Olympic Square next to the stadium, as "one of the great public spaces of New York City."

The plan calls for the reclamation of much of the East River waterfront, which the NYC 2012 declares "little more than abandoned wharves and warehouses" as a result of the decline of manufacturing. The plan includes the environmental remediation of nearly 500 acres of land, including 80 acres of waterfront. More than 600 acres of new or improved parkland would be created, two-thirds on brownfields.

Doctoroff says that no public money would be required for any of this, that revenues of $3.3 billion and operating costs of $2 billion would leave $1.3 billion to build the facilities and parks. NYC 2012 projects tens of thousands of jobs and more than $10 billion generated in economic impact. While this claim of cost-free benefits is the mantra of every city's pitch for the Olympics, experts report that several hundred million dollars in public investments is almost always required.

Anything Not to Like?

Corporate executives and real estate developers have quite literally bought into the plan. More than half a million dollars each has already been contributed (in conveniently tax-deductible form) to NYC 2012 by the Rudin Family, JP Morgan Chase, Merrill Lynch, Deutsche Bank, Bowne, the Doctoroff Family Foundation, and AOL Time Warner. The rest of the contributors list is a complete who's who of NYC's developers, financial institutions, insurance companies, law firms, news media (The NY Times, Daily News, Post, and Newsday), hotel associations, and major retailers.

Clearly the additional parkland, athletic facilities, and waterfront access would be a great boon in a city with too little of each. And the plan should be credited for distributing these benefits throughout the boroughs, with athletic facilities in Queens, Harlem, and Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx.

But questions remain about whether NYC 2012 is a sufficient framework to address the city's core planning needs for years to come. What kind of long-term real estate development do we want from public planning, land, and investment? How can we make sure that the city's "major development project of the decade" meets the broad real estate needs facing our city -- like affordable housing, decent jobs, and new schools?

Consider not only what is being created on the West Side, but also what is passing away. The area has historically been home to a mixed-use, mixed-income community committed to remaining that way. The Clinton Special Zoning District is the only place in the city where residents have adopted an inclusionary housing requirement that requires that developers build affordable housing if they want to maximize their buildable space. "They want a carpet of high-rise office buildings along 10th and 11th Avenues," said Simone Sindin, chair of Community Board 4. ''We would oppose that. We were hoping to use some of the land for affordable housing." Instead, they are likely to see skyrocketing property values that would displace the affordable housing that remains.

While NYC 2012 claims that the Olympic Village at Queens West would be converted to 4,400 of "high-quality affordable housing" after the Games, it is not clear to whom they would be affordable. At a time when the number in homeless shelters is at an all time high and more New Yorkers than ever pay the lion's share of their income for rent, any major public plan likely to increase real estate values and rents -- with substantial windfalls to private developers -- must do more to address the housing crisis.

The plan also reflects a decisive turn away from the manufacturing that once dominated the harbor. NYC 2012 envisions a waterfront attractive for living, recreation, and commuting, but it might hasten the end of the "working waterfront" which provided good jobs for working New Yorkers. While some believe these jobs are gone forever, others believe that a cross-harbor freight tunnel connecting Brooklyn with New Jersey could revive industry in the harbor. But there is little room in the Olympic X for freight. This plan would thus be part of a long-term conversion from a city where blue collar workers had real access to the middle class, to one where Wall Street investment bankers and restaurant workers share great parks and transit, but little else. NYC 2012 gives too little attention to how the economic benefits that come with $10 billion might be shared with low- and moderate-income New Yorkers to offset this trend.

A similar weakness is the missed opportunity to address the crisis of school overcrowding. The plan locates significant new housing in Queens, where school crowding is the worst and new construction has not kept pace with immigration. And it would spend billions on athletic facilities when we don't have enough money to build schools. If our shot at the Olympics is premised in part on our renewed status as a city of immigrants, we need to offer more to their children.

The United States Olympic Committee announces its decision on November 2, 2002. Stay tuned.

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 planning, architecture and design. Most relevant: the just released Briefing Book of Community-Based Plans available to download, which offers for the first time ever a comprehensive look at the sometimes spotty, sometimes inspired plans for (and from) each neighborhood across the city, complete with maps and community contact information.
  • 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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