NYC Zoning Handbook:

Chapter 1

Zoning shapes the city. Through zoning, a city controls building size, population density, and the way land is used. Along with the city's power to budget, tax, and condemn property, it is a key tool for carrying out planning policy. New York City has been a leader in zoning policy in the United States; the city enacted the nation's first comprehensive zoning resolution in 1916 and continues to be a pioneer in the field.

The first zoning resolution was created in response to inappropriate development in Lower Manhattan. By 1900, New York had become the major focus of private investment capital. Expanding businesses needed office space. New retail shopping areas were springing up. Technical restraints which had traditionally limited building height vanished with the introduction of steel beam construction techniques and improved elevators.

In 1915, the 42-story Equitable Building was constructed, covering the corner of Pine Street and lower Broadway. It cast a seven-acre shadow and deprived neighboring properties of light and air. Meanwhile, warehouses and factories were intruding into the clusters of fashionable stores on lower Fifth Avenue. The Manhattan skyline was beginning to assume its distinctive form. The time had come for the city to regulate its surging commercial growth.

The concept of enacting a set of laws to govern land use was revolutionary. The pioneering 1916 Zoning Resolution, though a relatively simple document, was, consequently, the product of extensive community debate. It established height and setback controls and separated what were seen as functionally incompatible uses -- such as factories -- from residential neighborhoods.

The 1916 ordinance became a model for urban communities throughout the United States as other growing cities found that New York's problems were not unique. But, while other cities were adopting the New York model, the model itself refused to stand still.

New York City changed rapidly as its population grew during the first half of the twentieth century. In 1916, the city's population was slightly more than 5,000,000; by 1960 it had grown to almost 8,000,000. The influx of immigrants from Europe, the southern United States, Latin America and Asia caused housing shortages and created a market for tenements built to maximum bulk -- and minimum standards. Transportation systems changed the way land was used. New development followed transit routes. The automobile also changed land use patterns and created traffic and parking problems never dreamed of in 1916.

The resolution was constantly amended. It had to be responsive to new technology, major shifts in land use, new government programs and population migrations. The amended resolution also had to meet the New York State requirement[1] that it be in accordance with a "well-considered plan."

A comparable legal requirement was enunciated in the historic case that established the constitutionality of zoning. In 1926, the United States Supreme Court, in Village of Euclid v. Ambler, validated the zoning ordinance of Euclid, Ohio, finding that it rested on a comprehensive plan for maintaining, protecting and upgrading the community. The court recognized that zoning is an appropriate extension of the community's authority to pass laws related to protecting the public health, safety, morals and general welfare.

The 1926 landmark decision provides a measure against which zoning regulations have been tested. The opinion also contains a far-seeing passage suggesting that zoning must evolve to meet the changing needs of changing times:

"Until recent years, urban life was comparatively simple; but with the great increase and concentration of population, problems have developed, and constantly are developing, which require, and will continue to require, additional restrictions in respect of the use and occupation of private lands in urban communities. Regulations, the wisdom, necessity and validity of which, as applied to existing conditions, are so apparent that they are now uniformly sustained, a century ago, or even half a century ago, probably would have been rejected as arbitrary and oppressive... [While] the meaning of constitutional guarantees never varies, the scope of their application must expand or contract to meet the new and different conditions which are constantly coming within the field of their operation."

The scope of the 1916 Zoning Resolution did expand greatly "to meet. . .the new and different conditions. . ." The expansion and changes, however, were ultimately more than the original framework could sustain. The need for a new document was clear.

Though the need was obvious, the course of devising and approving a new ordinance was complex. After lengthy discussion and public debate, the current resolution was enacted and took effect in 1961. This 1961 Zoning Resolution coordinated use and bulk regulations and incorporated parking requirements. It introduced the concept of "incentive zoning" by offering a bonus of extra floor space to encourage developers of office buildings and apartment towers to include plazas in their projects. The resolution emphasized the creation of open space. A flexible document, it was a product of the best planning, economic and architectural skills of its time.

However, it also had some shortcomings which surfaced with the experience of the passing years. Its emphasis on open space has sometimes resulted in tall buildings out of scale with their neighborhoods. And the open space provided has not always been particularly useful or attractive. New approaches have been developed since passage of the 1961 ordinance to deal with some of the problems that have emerged, and a host of incentive zoning, contextual zoning, special district, air-rights transfer and restrictive covenant techniques have been used to make zoning a more responsive and sensitive planning tool. Currently, several new concepts and reforms are under discussion.

Cities never stand still, nor should zoning.

[1] Section 20 (25) of the New York General City Law.

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