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Gotham Gazette -- Land Use
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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: Brooklyn Bridge Park

(may '00) The New York Times recently picked up on a story which had been percolating through the local papers for weeks: the Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation is nearing completion of a development plan. The plan includes former commercial piers on the Brooklyn waterfront extending from north of the Manhattan Bridge and south to Atlantic Avenue. This is the latest step in waterfront development - an issue at the forefront of urban planning today.

Of course, the redevelopment of the Brooklyn piers is nothing new. These piers fell into disuse decades ago, but only recently have a confluence of events allowed for the current planning process to proceed.

State funding for the planning process has been instrumental. The Brooklyn Bridge Parks Coalition was given $2 million to complete the plan. As the axiom of latter-day urban planning goes: money first, then plan.

Community input has also been important, preventing the plan from derailing along the way. Previous plans, spearheaded by various public agencies, met with untold resistance from the community. This process started from the grass-roots level and had representatives from all communities that would be affected, and from every politician north of Flatbush. Of course there were quarrels over that representation, but they were not great enough to derail the process. There are still many voices of opposition with the Brooklyn Heights community (though little from the other neighborhoods that will be served), especially the Joralemon Street corridor which promises to be a major pedestrian access point for the park. However the concerns of a new pedestrian "highway" seem a bit exaggerated. As one of the chief planners quipped to the Times "We're not looking for unanimity, just consensus."

Finally, the support of mixed uses has been an important asset in the development of the Brooklyn Bridge Park plan. The Brooklyn Heights Association finally dropped its long opposition to this park and to various commercial uses within it. The final park will likely have ventures that will aim to recoup some or all of the operating costs, a problematic phenomenon about which I have written before.

This park is still millions of dollars and at least ten years from completion, but the progress in the last 6-9 months has been greater than that of the previous three decades. This is reason for optimism. Now the race is on: which will be done first, Hudson River Park or Brooklyn Bridge Park?

I give HRP a 3:2 edge over BBP give or take 11 years for the first to finish. Any takers?

For more on Parks, see Anne Schwartz's column.

Josh Sounds Off:

It is The Biggest Land Use issue of the last forty years: the saga of Joe Rose's Zoning Resolution. It has passed most of Manhattan's Community Boards, though grudgingly so, and seems to be green-lighted for passage within the ULURP timeframe. There are a few problems with the new regulations.

The general theory behind these changes is great, but its application is lacking. Chairman Rose wants to move away the "Tower-in-the-Park" philosophy which guided the 1961 reforms and shift to a "Tower-on-a-Base" philosophy. This is a good move. But in practice, when combined with the total height restrictions this new theory will unduly limit the size of new construction.

Maintaining the street wall is a great idea, but the bulk of a story street wall will "suck up" much of the bulk which could be added to greater height of the building. We do not know what kind of buildings this new Zoning Resolution will produce, but, I believe, the buildings could be very un-New York. Rose's reforms were prompted by an extreme case -- Trump's 90-story tower on the East Side. While the new regulations may eliminate the extreme cases, it may also eliminate more moderate ones.

The proposed changes would limit the height of buildings even if they have Transferable Development Rights. Since the absence of TDRs, may be viewed as a ‘taking' of property, limiting this compensation in any way could put the entire ZR under constitutional scrutiny. I think the whole concept of 'zoning' may well reach the point in the next 10 years where a Constitutional challenge might persuade the Supreme Court to reexamine it on a fundamental level (it was only approved by a slim 5-4 vote in 1926. Swing one vote, and the whole landscape of America might have been different). Zoning was created at a time where noxious uses needed to be separated from residential ones. Even though zoning has been adapted through the decades, it is, fundamentally, based on the theory that uses should be separated and is therefore, ripe to be challenged.

Josh's Favorite 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.
  • 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.
  • 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:

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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