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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

Three Alternatives To An Independent Authority for Lower Manhattan

(Nov '01) Governor George Pataki and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani are proposing the creation of an independent authority to plan for and rebuild lower Manhattan. This authority would help to secure financing and would have the power to override local land use and zoning regulations. But it could cause more problems than it solves.

Part of the rationale for the independent authority is that rebuilding lower Manhattan is so urgent that the city and developers should be able to override the usual development restrictions. But such maneuvers often fail to save time. By short-circuiting input from local communities the authority could be inviting lengthy and costly legal battles by irate citizens and property owners.

It would be far better to start with a broad-based planning process, as broad as the emergency efforts that rallied thousands after September 11. Three alternatives already exist for planning and regulating new development. All of them could be ignored by an independent authority. They are known as ULURP, CEQR and 197-a.


New York City's procedure for handling land use and zoning matters is called the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP). It entails review by the affected community boards, the borough president, the City Planning Commission and City Council. There are 59 community boards in New York City.

Community Board #1 in lower Manhattan includes the site of the World Trade Center, Battery Park City, Wall Street, South Street Seaport, and Tribeca. Although community board and borough president decisions are advisory, they can influence the final votes by City Planning and the City Council. At each step along the way there is a mandatory public hearing.

The whole ULURP process takes no more than seven months. Clearing the World Trade Center site will take at least a year and rebuilding lower Manhattan will take five to ten years. So there is plenty of time for public review and participation through ULURP. Indeed, given the size and complexity of the rebuilding process, the amount of time it takes for a project to get through ULURP is relatively short.

Every new building or project is not necessarily required to go through ULURP, only those where a special permit, zoning change or urban renewal designation is involved. Most likely any major change in lower Manhattan will entail going through ULURP. But many buildings and sites in lower Manhattan can be redeveloped "as-of-right" without going through ULURP. Property owners would still have to get a building permit, which does not involve a public review procedure or public hearing.


Every proposal that goes through ULURP must include an assessment of its potential negative environmental impacts and propose measures to deal with them. The assessment is done under the City Environmental Quality Review (CEQR) procedures. Preparation of the technical studies required by CEQR could take anywhere from several months to a couple of years, depending on the nature and size of the proposed project.

In the case of lower Manhattan, the environmental review would necessarily have to consider existing air quality and contamination of land. In the wake of September 11, these are of critical importance to the residents and businesses in lower Manhattan, many of whom fear the long-term health consequences of the collapse of the twin towers. The CEQR process requires that developers disclose to the public and decision makers the potential environmental impacts of their proposals. It does not mandate any changes.

However, the CEQR review would help residents and businesses make the right decisions and reassure people that redevelopment will not have any long-term effects on public health and safety. This is particularly important to residents and workers of lower Manhattan who continue to complain of respiratory problems and question the reliability of statements by public health officials that there are no significant public health hazards in their neighborhood.


Overriding ULURP and CEQR for an entire section of the city would create an unfortunate precedent and tempt public officials to seek further overrides whenever they find it convenient. Government already has adequate authority to deal with emergencies, as it has done up to now in lower Manhattan. But redevelopment of a neighborhood is a long-term undertaking that should involve open public discussion and consensus. A small group of appointed board members, most of whom are not from the affected community, can easily step on the toes of the residents and workers who know the community best and have been struggling for years to improve it.


The World Trade Center disaster was much more than a local neighborhood matter. It has affected all New Yorkers and reverberated around the world. It is fitting, therefore, that redevelopment of the site and the area surrounding is of interest to broad sectors of the public. This includes the families and friends of the people who lost their lives on September 11, and the many more who lost their jobs and businesses.

But the people who have most at stake are those who have lived and worked there and are struggling to stay. They have seen lower Manhattan change dramatically in recent years and helped to bring about the change. In the last two decades, lower Manhattan began the process of transformation from a 9-to-5 business district to a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week community. Vacant office and industrial buildings were converted to housing. Retail and services were blooming to support this community. Many of those who staked their livelihoods on this dramatic transformation want to see the process resume and would like to help plan the direction that process takes.

Manhattan's Community Board #1 has been around for decades. Its members witnessed and took part in the development process. They are aware of the problems and pitfalls. Their constituents experienced first hand the tragedy of September 11. It makes good sense that they be at the center of any process to plan for the rebuilding of lower Manhattan.

A mechanism already exists that would allow this to happen. It does not require any new laws or the creation of a new authority. It is embodied in Section 197-a of the City Charter, which allows community boards to prepare plans and present them to the City Planning Commission and City Council for approval. To date only a handful of communities have done "197-a" plans because the City Planning Department does not encourage or help communities plan and community boards do not have the staff or resources. The City Council does not allocate any funds to implement the plans.

The new mayor and city council have a chance to change this. They can put their trust in the community board and make it the lead partner in a broad planning process. They can apply the billions in redevelopment funds to implement plans that garner community consensus. And they can set a precedent for partnerships with communities throughout the city that would help turn around one of the most unsavory features of New York City's political culture -- a bent towards confrontation and litigation when cooperation and consensus is possible.

The city's newly elected officials could continue business as usual and make all decisions through a small group of appointees. If they do so, they may be surprised at the obstacles in their way in the vibrant downtown community that is much more than the Stock Exchange. And they may rediscover the problems with independent authorities, especially those with broad powers to override local regulations. Ironically, it was Mayor Giuliani who heaped abuse on that mother of all independent authorities -- the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey -- for not heeding local needs. As he leaves office, why would he want to saddle the next administration with another entity over which it may have little control?

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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