NYC Zoning Handbook:
The Zoning Resolution is divided into two parts: zoning text and zoning
maps. The text establishes zoning districts and sets forth the
regulations governing land use and development. The maps show the
locations of the zoning districts.
The city is divided into three basic zoning districts: residential (R),
commercial (C), and manufacturing (M). The three basic categories are
further subdivided into lower, medium and higher density residential,
commercial and manufacturing districts.
Development within these districts is regulated by use, bulk and parking
regulations. Each zoning district regulates:
- permitted uses;
- the size (bulk) of the building permitted in relation to the
size of the lot;
- the required open space for residential uses on the lot, or the
maximum amount of building coverage allowed on the lot;
- the number of dwelling units or zoning rooms permitted on the
- the distance between the building and the street;
- the distance between the building and the lot line;
- the amount of parking required; and
- other requirements applicable to specific residential,
commercial or manufacturing activities.
The uses permitted in each of these districts are found in one or more
of eighteen use groups set forth in the resolution. The uses listed in
each use group have common functional or nuisance characteristics. The
use groups start with residential and institutional uses (Use Groups
1-4) and work their way up the nuisance scale from local retail and
service uses (Use Groups 5-9) to regional shopping centers (Use Groups
10-12), waterfront/recreation uses (Use Groups 13-15), heavy automotive
service (Use Group 16) and industrial uses (Use Groups 17 and 18). The
text identifies which use groups are permitted in each zoning district.
The maximum size (or bulk) of a building on a lot is determined by the
floor area ratio (FAR) assigned in the resolution to each zoning
district. It is the principal bulk regulation in the resolution,
controlling the physical volume of buildings. The floor area ratio
expresses the relationship between the amount of usable floor area
permitted in a building and the area of the lot on which the building
A building can contain floor area equal to the lot area multiplied by
the floor area ratio (FAR) of the district in which the lot is located.
For example, a building to be constructed on a 10,000-square-foot lot in
a district with a FAR of 10 could contain 100,000 square feet (10 x
10,000 square feet) of floor area. Similarly, a building on a
6,000-square-foot lot in a zoning district with a FAR of 6 could contain
36,000 square feet (6 x 6,000 square feet) of floor area. The lowest FAR
in any district is 0.5; the highest basic FAR is 15 in the highest
density office districts. In certain districts, the basic floor area
ratio permitted on a lot can be increased if public amenities such as
arcades or plazas are provided.
Open Space/Open Space Ratio
In certain residence districts, residential development must provide
open space on the zoning lot. In some districts the amount of open space
required is determined by the open space ratio (OSR), which expresses
the percentage of total floor area of a building that must be provided
as open space on a development parcel. For example, in a district with
an open space ratio of 19, the amount of open space required on the lot
would be 19 percent of the total floor area of the building. In other
residence districts, open space is determined by yard regulations or by
limiting development to a maximum lot coverage.
Lot coverage is that portion of a zoning lot which, when viewed directly
from above, is or would be covered by a building or any part of a
Another basic provision which applies only to residential developments
relates to population density. Density means the number of people living
in a certain area, generally expressed in terms of the number of
families, households or housing units per acre. Density controls, one of
several ways used to control the intensity of development, permit the
city to plan in an orderly way for new schools, utilities and transit
Population density is controlled by the requirement (which varies by
district) that a specified number of square feet of lot area be provided
per dwelling unit or room. The number of dwelling units or rooms allowed
on a lot is a measure of the number of people who are likely to reside
in each building.
Other Controls Affecting Building Spacing and Height
Floor area, open space or lot coverage, and density controls seek to
prevent an area from being overdeveloped and overcrowded. However, these
controls by themselves cannot prevent structures from depriving people
in other buildings and on the street of adequate light and air. To
ensure the provision of adequate light and air, there are yard
regulations, height and setback regulations, building spacing
regulations, and court regulations, among others. These regulations help
determine the height, length, and bulk of a building, and its placement
on the lot.
Yard regulations separate structures and provide space between them.
Generally, a 30-foot rear yard is required for each residential
building. Therefore, the space between the rear of two residential
structures, built opposite each other on the same block, would be 60
feet -- providing the same access for light and air as for buildings
fronting on typical 60-foot streets.
Height and Setback
Height and setback provisions also provide for light and a sense of
openness in the streets and yards.
In most medium and higher density districts, the height of a building's
front wall at the street line is generally limited to a specified height
or number of stories. Above that height, a building is required to set
back behind a theoretical inclined plane -- the sky exposure plane --
which cannot be penetrated by the building wall. In certain districts, a
rear sky exposure plane provides greater light and air to the rear
yards. However, a tower rising without setback which covers only 40
percent of its lot is permitted to penetrate the sky exposure plane
because its compensating slender profile provides more open space at the
In most lower density districts, there are specific maximum perimeter
wall heights above which the building usually must have a pitched roof
or be set back before rising to the permitted building height.
Typically, building height is determined by the interplay of zoning
regulations with a developer's design and economic concerns.
In general, space must be provided between certain types of residential
buildings on the same zoning lot according to a special formula. In
order to provide adequate light and air to windows on courts, minimum
court sizes are established. In addition, there are also requirements
for the amount of space which must be provided in front of legally
Zoning laws also require the provision of off-street parking for most
new developments. Parking on the site of a new development helps
eliminate congestion on nearby streets. In areas where additional
parking would generate more traffic than desirable, and where mass
transit is available, the requirement for on-site parking is reduced or
eliminated. Off-street loading berths for commercial and manufacturing
uses may be required.
The size and placement of signs are also regulated in each zone.
Manufacturing uses and certain intense commercial uses are subject to
performance standards which limit noise, air pollution and other
nuisance-creating activity. These zoning controls provide minimum
acceptable standards, and are designed to provide building occupants and
the general public with light, air and ventilation, and a safer, more
The Resolution is Not Retroactive
Regulations generally do not affect existing land uses or buildings
which were legal when built under former codes or different
classifications. Such uses are known as legal non-conforming uses.
Buildings that conform with use regulations but do not comply with
subsequently enacted bulk regulations (non-complying buildings) are
subject to controls limiting their enlargement or conversion. In
addition, they may not be reconstructed if substantially damaged.
Otherwise, such bulk non-compliance may continue.
Most development or use of unimproved land need meet only the provisions
of the Zoning Resolution to be granted a building permit as a matter of
right. This means that a developer may build a structure as-of-right if
the Department of Buildings is satisfied that the structure complies
with the Zoning Resolution and the Building Code. No action is required
by the City Planning Commission under such circumstances. The developer
simply files architectural plans with the Department of Buildings and
can begin construction upon issuance of a building permit.
Other development is allowed only by special permit granted either by
the City Planning Commission with City Council review upon request by
the Borough President or by call-up by the City Council by majority
vote, or by the Board of Standards and Appeals. Special permits are
granted after public hearings and pursuant to specific conditions set
forth in the Zoning Resolution. There are two types of special permits:
modifications of the use regulations and modifications of the bulk or
parking regulations. For example, uses such as riding academies,
heliports, electric substations, large parking garages and sewage
disposal plants require careful siting and design treatment to ensure
that they do not adversely affect surrounding neighborhoods. There are
special review procedures for considering these facilities. Each of
these uses has certain characteristics which make such special
consideration essential -- those involving significant planning issues
are under the jurisdiction of the City Planning Commission. Other
permits are referred to the Board of Standards and Appeals.
At its discretion, the City Planning Commission or, in some instances
the Chairperson of the City Planning Commission may, by resolution at a
public meeting, modify certain zoning requirements provided that
specific findings set forth in the Zoning Resolution have been
satisfied. Unlike the procedure for special permits, a public hearing is
For some as-of-right development, the City Planning Commission or the
Chairperson of the City Planning Commission is required to
administratively certify to the Department of Buildings that certain
specified conditions set forth in the Zoning Resolution have been
satisfied before a building permit may be issued.
The City Planning Commission also must certify that an application is
complete in order to commence public review under the Uniform Land Use
Review Procedure (ULURP) of the New York City Charter.
There are two types of zoning amendments: amendments to the zoning text
and amendments to the zoning map. A change to the zoning text or map may
be reasonable in a situation where the zoning regulations would result
in an awkward site plan or prevent useful development of an area. In
other cases, a change to the text or map may be necessary to preserve an
area from unwarranted or destructive change.
Amendments are generally initiated by the Department of City Planning,
although the City Council Committee on Land Use, the Borough President,
or any taxpayer, community board, or borough board may apply to the City
Planning Commission for a change to the text or maps. Pursuant to ULURP
provisions, amendments may be approved only after consultation with
affected community and borough boards, the Borough President, public
hearing by the Commission and subsequent approval by the City Council.
All zoning amendments must satisfy various legal requirements, including
those discussed in the final section of this chapter.
Sometimes the peculiar shape or unusual topography of a parcel would
cause unnecessary hardship were the owner required to comply with all
the applicable regulations of the Zoning Resolution. In such cases, the
Board of Standards and Appeals may grant variances from the use and bulk
provisions of the resolution to the extent necessary to permit a
reasonable use of the parcel.
Legal Constraints in Framing or
Amending a Zoning Resolution
The courts have laid down general guidelines to ensure that individual
owners do not reap undue windfalls or suffer serious privation because
of zoning actions.
A zoning change which would enrich one or more property owners in the
absence of a direct relationship to public policy and objectives could
be challenged. Such inappropriate actions, particularly when benefit to
one owner is coupled with injury to surrounding owners, are often found
by the courts to be "spot zoning" and illegal.
At the other extreme, zoning may not totally deprive owners of the use
of their property. Such an action could be declared unconstitutional by
the courts and set aside as a confiscation without due process. However,
zoning which reduces the value of land through use or bulk restrictions
is not necessarily invalid. The law requires that owners be compensated
if their property is taken for a public purpose.
 Residential, commercial and industrial activities are major users of
land; at present they occupy about 67 percent of the city's net land
area, exclusive of streets. (Streets comprise about 25 percent of the
city's gross area.) The remaining 33 percent of the city's net area
consists of parks and recreational uses; schools, hospitals and other
public and private institutions and community facilities; and major
airports. Zoning laws do not usually apply to public streets and public