NYC Zoning Handbook:
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 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
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 that it be in accordance with a
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
"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
Cities never stand still, nor should zoning.
 Section 20 (25) of the New York General City Law.