In reflecting upon 100 years of zoning from the Department of City Planning’s headquarters in the Equitable Building in Lower Manhattan, it is hard to escape the irony: the need to establish controls over building height and form only became compelling when the 42-story building was built in 1915. Today, the Equitable Building is a beloved landmark.
At its full height of 538 feet, what was then the largest office building in the world cast a seven-acre shadow over neighboring buildings, arousing concern over the impact on their property values and their access to light and air. Its construction precipitated the creation of the nation’s first comprehensive zoning ordinance.
Other forces were also at work. New York City had become the financial center of the country. Expanding businesses needed office space. Housing shortages, caused by an influx of new immigrants with few transportation options, hatched a market of overcrowded tenements with minimal light and air. Warehouses and factories, bringing many immigrant laborers to the Garment District, began to encroach upon the fashionable stores lining Ladies’ Mile, creeping uncomfortably close to Fifth Avenue. The hangover from rapid growth added urgency to the calls of reformers to regulate development and enact restrictions.
The Zoning Resolution of 1916 was a groundbreaking tool for regulating the use and shape of buildings. It maintained the underlying ethos of the City that existed for three centuries of opening its arms to growth. But, at the same time, it reflected the need to begin to appropriately manage the pace of change. It began as a passive instrument that set limits on building size and use. It told a developer what could not be built, a control for what should not happen. It designated residential districts that protected them from what were seen as incompatible uses—like factories. It fostered the iconic tall, slender towers that came to epitomize the City’s business districts as well as the familiar scale of three- to six-story residential buildings found in much of the city today.
Though a relatively simple document, the new ordinance had a profound effect on the world. It was comprehensive. It was innovative. It was historic. The 1916 Resolution left an indelible stamp on the city, and became a model for urban communities throughout the U.S. as other growing cities found that New York’s challenges were not unique. It was recognized as an essential planning tool.
By mid-century, however, many of the underlying planning principles of the 1916 Resolution seemed old-fashioned. In the postwar period, as the U.S. population suburbanized, the City was seen as crowded, deficient in open space, and not expected to grow substantially beyond its population of nearly eight million. If the City had been built out to the full extent allowed by the 1916 Resolution, as pointed out by the drafters of the 1961 Resolution, it could have contained over 55 million people – far beyond realistic capacity. New theories crept into the imaginations of planners, like Le Corbusier’s “tower-in-the-park” model. There was a growing recognition of the need to reconcile the City to the ubiquitous presence of automobiles.
Zoning is to the city what the riverbed is to the river—it doesn’t fill the river or make it flow, but it plays an essential role in shaping and directing it. And the riverbed itself is also reshaped over time as the waters press against its limits, as rain and drought occur, and as the surrounding environment changes. Zoning is dynamic, not permanent nor rigid. It is, in a real sense, a system of priorities that shift to reflect the needs and consciousness of changing times.
Hence, with the 1961 Zoning Resolution, zoning underwent a fundamental change. It went from being a control over what should not happen, to being a positive document. In simplest terms, it was a reflection of its time and channeled what should or could be built in a district. It sought to inject open spaces—and parking spaces—into the body of a city that was expected to redevelop rather than grow.
We have seen change occur again and again. With the 1987 contextual zoning. With 1989 low-density. With the creation of special districts, urban design, resiliency and sustainability. And, most recently, with Mandatory Inclusionary Housing and Zoning for Quality and Affordability.
Today, for the first time in a century of zoning, the Resolution proactively channels the City’s desire to build economically diverse and livable neighborhoods by including requirements for affordable housing in growing areas of the City. Good, quality design is also key. In the simplest of terms, it is about smarter zoning. The evidence is persuasive that poor children who grow up in economically diverse neighborhoods tend to do better than those who do not. We owe a path to upward mobility to our kids and our grandkids. And we owe quality, affordable housing to our growing senior population. We cannot expect the market to achieve this alone, even in combination with substantial public expenditures. The zoning code should be versatile enough to broaden the horizons of planning and allow the public to assume more direct control of its destiny.
As we look forward to the next 100 years of zoning, we must recognize the City is always changing and growing—change that is impacting the way we live, the way we work, indeed, our very planet. Zoning must provide the marketplace and the public with a degree of certainty and predictability. It is a major tool to achieve our planning goals of thoughtful development. But, it is not an immutable framework. Just as the market is not perfect, zoning is not perfect. And, zoning is the language of the physical City. Our values as a City of embracing diversity, innovation and equity are eternal. But, as new challenges, new technology and new priorities emerge, our Zoning Resolution must be flexible enough to respond and change as well.
Carl Weisbrod is the Director of the New York City Department of City Planning and Chair of the New York City Planning Commission