NYC Zoning Handbook:
Zoning Tomorrow

Chapter 13

Zoning is neither permanent nor rigid. It is, in a real sense, a system of values that changes to reflect the needs and consciousness of changing times.

It began as a passive instrument that set limits on size and use. It told developers what could not be built. It was a negative control.

With the enactment of the 1961 Zoning Resolution, zoning underwent a fundamental change. The 1961 code is a positive, permissive document In simplest terms, this is manifested by the way the Zoning Resolution determines what can be built in a district. Unlike the 1916 code, it specifically enumerates uses allowed in each district. Formerly, when a new use came into being, it could locate anywhere until zoning caught up with its existence. Now, new uses must fit into one of the 18 Use Groups or be one of the uses allowed by special permit

The 1961 document is positive in another way with more far-reaching implications. The framers of the 1961 Zoning Resolution judged that public open space at the base of towers in dense areas was desirable. They also recognized that private developers could not be expected to donate such plaza space, but that by offering the incentive of extra rentable floor area as a trade-off, public plazas could be provided on many sites. With this plaza bonus, zoning took a major step forward. A new concept was introduced, the use of zoning as a positive instrument to carry out public policy with private finances. Since 1961, many new techniques have been incorporated into the Zoning Resolution. Zoning has been used to help revitalize the Theatre District to protect the scale and quality of special neighborhoods, to establish natural area districts that preserve trees, streams, and hills, to save sound housing and to spur development where it would bring new vitality to the city's communities. Other special techniques that have been adopted include urban design guidelines for sidewalk cafes, recycling of buildings to create new housing, and stabilization of certain mixed use areas.

More recent amendments to the Zoning Resolution include: contextual zoning of lower density neighborhoods in the outer boroughs, as well as medium density zones in parts of Brooklyn and Queens, and higher density areas on Manhattan's Upper West Side and Upper East Side; loft conversion regulations that affect parts of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens; regulations preventing sliver building construction in high density residential neighborhoods in Manhattan; new parking regulations to implement federal and state air quality objectives; special midtown zoning controls; Inclusionary Housing; and Quality Housing.

Other potential zoning initiatives under consideration are:

  • New regulations for waterfront development and floating uses;
  • A review of the regulations concerning community facility uses;
  • Special off-street loading requirements to improve vehicular circulation in the central business district areas;
  • A review of the plaza bonus provisions; and
  • Expanded Inclusionary Housing programs.

Clearly, these and other concepts expand the boundaries of zoning from a strict measure of building setbacks or a list of allowed (or excluded) uses. They broaden the horizons of planning and give government and the people more flexible and sensitive controls to shape their environment.


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