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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
Joshua S. Trauner recently received his Masters of Urban Planning degree from NYU's Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service.
The Archives
See past monthly updates for Land Use.
by Joshua Trauner

Election Special-Zoning, Planning, Housing, the Olympics, the Waterfront

(Oct-Nov '00) Land use decisions are local, and therefore mostly debated on the local level, a level too local for most candidates. But there are five broad and important issues in land use facing New Yorkers.

1) New Zoning. Likely to pass, but still little-known to the population at large, is the current drive to update NYC's zoning resolution (last changed in 1961). The changes seek to limit heights in all but the most central area, eliminate the much debated "plaza bonus" and simplify an overall indecipherable set of rules.

2) Housing/space. Always at a shortage, NYC housing crunch is at an all-time high. Housing for anyone but the very rich is scarce and must be addressed. Also commercial space is nearly gone (vacancy rates are in the low single-digits) which will drive business to other cities or New Jersey!

3) Waterfront development. The waterfront is currently the most underutilized segment of city land, due to the collapse of waterfront commercial and manufacturing activities. Hundreds of waterfront acres lie vacant and crumbling. Parks, housing, stores have been planned, but momentum must be increased.

4) Olympics. NYC 2012 is a chance to change the face of NYC. The Olympic Games may only last for two weeks, but the infrastructure it would leave behind, especially new stadiums and transportation improvements, would be invaluable, and probably otherwise unobtainable.

5) Community Planning. Since the 1970's, community planning boards have wielded much power over land use decisions in their own neighborhoods, and rightly so. Early planners trampled over neighborhoods when it suited them. But these boards too often serve as obstructionist, myopic community-only voices, while sometimes not even representing their community well. The voice of the city as a whole must be restored in the land use process.

Few candidates are addressing these land use issues. I've rarely heard a politician give more than lip service to affordable housing; few can even define it well. [See the Housing Topic Page] The Olympics are too far away. State and national-level politicians care little for the workings of community boards, and the boards are too powerful for local politicians to come out against them. However, specific waterfront projects are of concern to the politicians.[See the Waterfront Topic Page]

Sites For Beginners:

  • Municipal Arts Society - A great place for all things regarding New York architecture, design, and land use. Most relevant: their coverage of the Zoning Reforms, and its accompanying informational booklet.
  • 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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