NYC Zoning Handbook:
Zoning Today

Chapter 2

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).[1] 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 lot;
  • 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.

Use Groups

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.

Building Size

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 stands.

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

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 building.

Density

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 expansion.

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.

Yards

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 street level.

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 required windows.

Parking

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.

Signs

The size and placement of signs are also regulated in each zone.

Performance Standards

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 livable environment.

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.

As-of-Right Development

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.

Special Permits

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.

Authorizations

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 not required.

Certifications

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.

Zoning Amendments

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.

Variances

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.

Footnote:
[1] 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 parks.

 

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