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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
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 Laura Wolf-Powers and Brad Lander

Mixed Use Vs. "Office Mono-Culture"

The talk these days is of making Ground Zero and its surroundings a "mixed use neighborhood." The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation's recent statement of principles envisions a "mixed-use magnet for the arts, culture, tourism, education and recreation." Mayor Michael Bloomberg hopes that downtown will emerge with a new mix of public institutions, offices, stores and residential space. Careful planning and investment, they say, can create a neighborhood more vibrant, more interesting, more balanced, than the one dominated by skyscrapers that existed before September 11th.

What these new mixed-use advocates rarely mention is that Lower Manhattan was a mixed-used neighborhood before anybody used the phrase "mixed-use." As late as the 1950s, a bustling wholesale food market at Washington, Fulton and Vesey Streets supplied the city with produce, while a "hi-fi district" of electronic equipment stores flourished. Commercial and residential development was small-scale and accommodated tenants with a mix of incomes.

Starting in the 1950s, however, downtown land uses narrowed toward offices - often as a result of the city's own initiatives, rather than market forces. Planners relocated the produce market to the Bronx. They used urban renewal funds to build offices for government and non-profit agencies on the east side of the lower tip of Manhattan, rather than the moderate-income housing that they originally had planned. And the city subsidized the private construction of millions of square feet of new, high-rent, office space targeted at the complex of industries known as Finance, Insurance & Real Estate, referred to by policy types as FIRE. The World Trade Center towers themselves - developed by the Port Authority with $1 billion in public funds - exemplified the office mono-culture that sapped the area of its diversity.

Mixed-use development may be making a conceptual comeback in lower Manhattan, but the public policies that created office mono-culture downtown - zoning laws and tax abatements - still dominate New York City at large. Economic development, land use policies, and financial incentives for corporations who threaten to leave NYC all target the FIRE sectors. This focus on office development means that other kinds of firms - such as arts organizations and manufacturing firms, who find the cost of space in NYC prohibitively high - do not receive city assistance. As Good Jobs New York asks, "How come the big boys in Manhattan get all the dough?"

As we see it, this preoccupation with offices creates two major problems:

1. New York is over-specialized in financial and related services. The local economy is therefore dangerously sensitive to swings in that sector. The proportion of the city's employees concentrated in FIRE jobs is about 13 percent. That is twice the proportion that exists in Los Angeles and 40 percent more than in Chicago or Philadelphia. Moreover, FIRE earnings make up a disproportionate share of city income - more than 30 percent. Thus, the loss of close to 40,000 jobs in these industries since last summer's peak has dealt a devastating blow to the city treasury.

2. The focus on luxury offices for FIRE tenants comes at the expense of industries that New York needs for a diverse, healthy economy. We are losing small theaters that serve as training grounds for future Broadway stars, woodworking shops where workers make custom furniture for corporate offices, garment firms that do crucial "just-in-time" manufacturing for the fashion industry, and specialty food businesses that supply award-winning restaurants. These firms hire a variety of New York residents and create vitality in neighborhoods throughout the city. Jeopardizing their survival diminishes the viability of other industry sectors in which the city has a competitive advantage: tourism, fashion, advertising and graphic design É and, yes, FIRE.

Why do NYC policy makers love offices? First, there is an economic argument. Many contend that high land, labor and transportation costs make it uneconomical to run many kinds of businesses here, particularly manufacturing. The city is well-suited for high-level, internationally-exported services like finance and law. Planners and public officials seeking the "highest and best" (read, most profitable) use for land within the city's borders see building offices as their best bet. But it is not clear that an urban economy can thrive on services alone. And the FIRE industries are among the most polarized between high- and low-wage jobs, with high-paying jobs only for a small elite.

Then, there are the politics. Real estate developers and banks are the largest contributors to local candidates for office. The connection between these donations and government support for office-oriented initiatives is surely not coincidental. The constituency for city-subsidized office mono-culture is powerful and well-organized. The constituency for a more balanced development strategy (smaller commercial and industrial businesses, non-profit organizations, and blue-collar workers) is far more fragmented. When Lower Manhattan lost its heterogeneity in the mid-20th century, land values rose. But less tangible benefits were lost, and the city was placed on a more vulnerable economic footing. Recent statements on mixed-use development suggest that decision-makers now see the benefits (financial and social, near-term and longer-term) of a diversity of land uses downtown. We hope the principle that it takes more than just FIRE to make a thriving city will soon guide policy more generally. Land use and economic development measures aimed at ensuring industrial diversity can help New York retain the unique character that is its greatest source of economic strength.

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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