The New York City Zoning Resolutions of 1916 and 1961 have helped the city become a safer, more convenient, and beautiful place. Without the regulations put in place in 1916, Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, Jackson Heights in Queens, and most of the rest of the city might well have developed in the same unhealthy, unpleasant, and unsafe manner that characterized much of what was built during the 19th century.
Without the changes of 1961 we would be unable to use the more than one hundred acres of privately-managed, publicly-accessible plazas and arcades produced in response to bonus provisions of the Zoning Resolution. Without the ability to transfer unused development rights from landmarks, many owners would have demolished much of our heritage and the Supreme Court would have declared our preservation landmark law to be unconstitutional. Without an array of post-1961 special zoning provisions, Times Square would surely have fewer neon signs and LED screens, fewer theaters, fewer tourists, fewer businesses, and many more problems.
Nevertheless, New York City’s zoning regulations (like those of the rest of the country) are obsolete 20th century mechanisms. The Zoning Resolution (now 3,876 pages long) has become so complicated that it no longer can be understood by the city residents who live in the buildings it regulates, the property owners who must comply with its instructions, or the public officials who must approve its contents and enforce its provisions.
Fortunately, there is a 21st century remedy to this situation. The city should create a GPS-based application, which would automatically provide all the specific requirements that apply to any individual lot in the city and reconfigure them for an assemblage of lots. With this computer system in place citizens, property owners, government officials, and consultants would have easy access to every regulation that applied to any location within the city. In addition, the users of the computerized system be able to identify the requirements of any proposed (1) building footprint, (2) building bulk, (3) property use, and (4) occupancy.
Creating this user-friendly application, however, requires a major edit of the text, too much of which is currently indecipherable. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the opaque language of the Zoning Resolution, here is a typical quotation:
Creating a computerized zoning resolution would save tremendous amounts of time and work as well as millions of dollars currently spent by architects and lawyers to come up with legal proposals and by government employees to determine whether proposals comply with the law, as well as time spent by property owners, developers, community leaders, and public officials in considering proposals of any kind.
Were we to succeed in creating such a 21st century computerized zoning system, construction in NYC might well become even cheaper than in Houston, where nobody needs to check the zoning, because there isn’t any.
 New York City Planning Commission, Zoning Resolution, Article V, Chapter 2, Section 52-01.
Alexander Garvin is the President and CEO of of AGA Public Realm Strategists, Inc., a planning and design firm in New York City, and Adjunct Professor of Urban Planning and Management at Yale University, where he has taught for more than 48 years.