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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

by Joshua S. Trauner

The Topic: "Land Use/Zoning" 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. Near-synonyms: Development; Planning.

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? Where can auto-body stores locate? 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.

Josh's Favorite Five 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

In The News: New Homes in New York

The 28 July New York TimesMetro Section highlights a report from NYU Law School's Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy ("New Home Costs Found Highest in New York," Page 1, Section B). This report details how NYC land use policies have driven up the cost of new residential construction. The problems with the current policies are myriad -- arcane zoning, overregulation, and excessive bureaucracy -- to name a few. These policy problems have a pervasive impact, affecting all types of construction, not just residential, and spilling over into other aspects of public life. The report calls for the Mayor to take heed and start streamlining the building process. This would encourage more residential construction in all five boroughs, (which is sorely needed) and likely reduce the cost of housing in a market that has far outpaced the nation's.

Other Recommendations:

  • Municipal Arts Society - A good place for theory and practice on public spaces, public art, and architectural preservation. 
  • New York Landmarks Preservation - Packed with information on preservation and restoration of landmarked buildings.
  • Design Trust - A solid organization devoted to NYC design issues. 
  • Cityscape Institute - An influential group with a disappointingly meager website. Good section on land use publications.
  • Donald Trump - So sue me: the man represents something or other about the age we live in. Besides, did you know that The Donald's father (Fred Trump) made his money on government-subsidized low-middle-income housing in the suburbs?

Josh Sounds Off:

In a recent speech, City Planning "Commissioner" and "Chairman" of the City Planning Commission Joseph A. Rose put forth several proposals for revamping the city's zoning resolution.

So what does Joe Rose want? Well... a few things. His speech calls for a return to some of the zoning principles of the 1916 zoning Resolution, which were partially or totally abandoned with the 1961 revision. This includes: increasing parking for new residential construction; eliminating the so-called "plaza" bonus which allowed up to a 15% bulk increase for providing public space; and the lynchpin: an aesthetic review board which would allow exceptions for extraordinary design. Architects have already weighed in on that one.

Chairman Rose has many things right: 1) zoning should be predictable ("As-of-right"). Developers should know what they can and cannot build on a piece of property without negotiation. 2) There should be an increase in residential parking -- not street or lot parking for commuters, but in-building parking for year-round residents. 3) The "plaza" bonus has been a failure and should be permanently repealed. Rose is also right on many of his smaller points. There are arcane regulations, rightfully enacted long ago which are now a hindrance to commerce (e.g. in-store photo development).

But Rose is grossly wrong on one of his proposed reforms: An aesthetic review board is inviting gross inequity. Who will serve on this board? Friends of the Mayor? Who can be a fair judge on matters of taste? This board would only exist to grant exceptions to zoning on the basis of good design, thus debasing the belief that good design can occur within present zoning laws. This board will either be useless or resoundingly hated. I say either alter zoning to allow bigger buildings or accept the fact that we may be compromising good design with our restrictions.

Visit the Topic Archives!

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