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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
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

In the News: How Race and Poverty Affect Land Use Decisions

(aug-sep '00) In the debate over the Brooklyn Bridge Park, residents of Joralemon Street in Brooklyn Heights complain that it would result in vastly increased foot and vehicle traffic down their street, which would serve as a primary entrance to the park. But park supporters argue that expressions of concern over such issues as traffic, along with crime, litter, and quality of life, are all really code words that betray a fear of an influx of blacks and Hispanics from poorer sections of the borough, according to the New York Times.

This is far from the first time that race and class would play a part in decisions involving land use. The results are plainly visible throughout the city. Poorer communities have far fewer resources (economic power, political access, neighborhood cohesiveness, spare time) to fight undesirable land uses and so these uses (waste disposal sites, expressways, power plants,) end up in the most economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. Wealthy neighborhoods have tree-lined streets, parks, and no manufacturing areas. NIMBY (not in my backyard!), it seems, is only for those who can afford it. This situation creates some of the most galling inequalities in our society, with the poorer communities suffering higher asthma rates, for example - a problem compounded by the residents’ lesser access to health care.

In the Brooklyn Bridge Park case, the typical NIMBY situation is now being turned somewhat on its head. Wealthy whites are fighting a land use decision (NIMBY). But what they are fighting is a park. There are not many neighborhoods around that would do that.

It is important to make clear that only a small group of Heights residents are fighting this park. The Park Coalition did an excellent job of public-awareness. It has convinced most residents of the benefits of the park and has taken most neighborhood concerns into account. Even the Brooklyn Heights Association - the venerable group which fought and beat Robert Moses on the Brooklyn-Queens Express (resulting in the Promenade in the 1950's), and continues to fight most new development in the Heights - has signed on to the Park plan. That goes a long way toward showing neighborhood acceptance.

Limited opportunities exist nowadays for new park construction. The hundreds of millions of dollars required for this project would only be available for a grand park of this scale. This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance, on the order of the creation of Central Park in the 19th century.

It should not be missed, least of all due to xenophobic and racist attitudes that only serve to divide communities. There are plenty of opportunities to fight racism in land use and development, but to create more in such an unexpected situation does none of that.

Slightly aside... In one of the most ironic 'land use and poverty' situations of recent memory, the Parks Department reconstructed the Tiffany Street pier in the South Bronx in 1997. This reconstruction provided vital recreation and waterfront access to one of the most park-starved and economically deprived areas of the city. In addition, a new plastic-resin material was used for the pier. It cost less, would wear better and not contribute to tree destruction. Now the ironic part - within months of opening, the pier was hit by lightning and melted - a one-in-a-million chance. The pier has since been rebuilt.

Josh Sounds Off: Poe the Poet

Nevermore! - Greenwich Village residents are still astir over New York University Law School's new project on West 3rd street that would demolish a building where Edgar Allan Poe once lived. I am all for historic preservation and I love Poe's work, but I've seen literally dozens of purported "Poe residences" not only across Manhattan but across the country (The University of Virginia even keeps a room where he stayed as a student!). Do we need to preserve all of these places? Poe lived at this one for less than one year - does that qualify it to stand for all time? We've gone too far on this one. NYU Law School is a good neighbor for the Village and a great benefit for the city, and if it needs to build a facility for its operations it should be allowed to do so. Even Poe would approve. By the way, when I last moved, I asked my landlord to preserve my old apartment exactly as I lived there, but he said to do that would violate health codes and promptly refused.

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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