NYC Zoning Handbook: Lower Density
Contextual Zoning: Technical Provisions

Chapter 9

Adopted in 1989, lower density contextual zoning seeks to restore a meaningful difference between R3, R4 and R5 districts and ensure that new residential development in low-rise neighborhoods is compatible with existing housing. In order to achieve these goals, the zoning text incorporated a number of modifications that alter the bulk, density, configuration and parking requirements in lower density residential districts.

Some requirements have become simpler. A maximum lot coverage percentage instead of an open space ratio now determines how much of a zoning lot may be covered by a building. Where no lot coverage requirement is stated, coverage is regulated by yard requirements. Density is now regulated by the minimum amount of lot area per dwelling unit instead of the minimum amount of lot area per zoning room, a change previously implemented in the medium and higher density contextual districts.

Height and Setback

New height and setback rules which limit overall building height maintain the existing streetscape and re-establish the distinctions among residential districts. In zoning districts where peaked roofs and setbacks predominate (R2X, R3A, R3-1, R3-2, R4, R4-1 and R4A), the new regulations permit residential buildings with at least two full floors or two floors and an attic. In R2X, R3 and R4A districts, the maximum perimeter wall height of a building is 21 feet; in R4 and R4-1 districts, 25 feet. A third floor is permitted within the parameters of the designated building envelope. The envelope has a series of planes which permit a variety of pitched roof and setback designs that reflect neighborhood scale. The maximum height at the apex of the envelope is 35 feet.

graphic: building envelope

Zoning districts characterized by rowhouses and small apartment buildings also have new height and setback regulations. In R4B districts, a height limit of 24 feet permits rowhouses of at least two full floors. In RS and R5B districts, rowhouses and apartment buildings may have a maximum street wall height of 30 feet. Above this height, buildings with setbacks may reach a total height of 33 feet in R5B districts and 40 feet in R5 districts.

Floor Area

Rules for determining what may be counted in floor area calculations have changed to more accurately reflect the actual amount of usable living space. Attic space is no longer excluded from total floor area; the new attic allowance permits additional floor area under certain conditions. In neighborhoods where buildings with pitched roofs predominate (R2X, R3, R4, R4A and R4-1), the attic allowance grants additional FAR of up to 20 percent of the base FAR for space with ceiling heights of between five and eight feet located beneath a pitched roof, whether on the top floor or on a lower floor.

graphic: attic allowance

The exclusion of enclosed parking space from the floor area count has been eliminated in some building configurations and districts and limited in others. Garages in detached and semi-detached residential buildings count in full as floor area. Garages in attached residential buildings, however, receive a deduction of up to 100 square feet from the floor area count. Freestanding garages are not included as floor area nor are garages with five or more spaces whose ceiling height is not more than six feet above grade. For detached and semi-detached buildings in R3-2, R4 and R5 districts, an additional 100 square feet of floor area may be added to the base floor area to encourage the provision of a separate accessory garage in the rear yard. All floor space in cellars continues to be excluded from the floor area count.

Front Yards

Minimum front yard depths are required in order to maintain the common streetscape and the relationship of residential buildings in specific districts. The minimum front yard depth is 10 feet in R3A, R4-1 and R4A districts; if each of the adjacent front yards is deeper than 10 feet, the front yard of a new building must be at least as deep as one of the adjacent yards although it need not exceed 20 feet. For example, if the adjacent yards are 12 feet and 15 feet deep, the depth of the front yard must be at least 12 feet.

The minimum front yard depth is five feet in R4B and R5B districts; if each of the adjacent front yards is greater than five feet, the front yard of a new building must be at least as deep as one of the adjacent yards but no deeper than the other adjacent front yard although it need not exceed 20 feet. For example, if the adjacent front yards are six feet and eight feet deep, the depth of the front yard must range between six and eight feet. In R4 and R5 districts without a suffix, front yards must be either 10 feet in depth to forestall front yard parking, or a minimum of 18 feet to ensure that cars parked in front yard driveways do not jut onto the sidewalk. Front yard depths between 10 feet and 18 feet are not permitted.

graphic: front yard alignment

Front yard requirements pertain to enlargements and additions to existing buildings as well as new construction.


New parking regulations that restrict curb cuts and driveway locations will increase the availability of curbside parking and promote the landscaping of front yards. For single- and two-family houses on narrow zoning lots (less than 35 feet in width), parking must be provided in a side lot ribbon which is a driveway that runs parallel to the side lot line. A minimum of 16 feet is required between curb cuts to expand the number of curbside parking spaces. Single- and two-family houses on wider lots must provide at least 18 feet of curbside parking space. Rowhouse developments may have curb cuts no wider than 15 feet serving paired driveways and must maintain 16 feet of curbside parking space.

graphic: side lot ribbon/curb cuts

Side lot ribbons, which are prevalent in many older neighborhoods, eliminate uninterrupted curb cuts that disrupt curbside parking. Side lot ribbons also foster planted front yards in lower density communities by eliminating front yard paved parking.

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