One Hundred Years of Zoning
by Robert A. M. Stern
The 1916 ordinance perpetuated an orderly city. The 1961 revision did not.

The devastating impact of Graham, Anderson, Probst & White’s forty-story, 1,200,000-square-foot Equitable Building (1912-15), 120 Broadway, rising sheer from the building line on a modest site and transforming the surrounding streets into preternaturally dark canyons, is customarily cited as the motivating factor behind the creation of the New York City Building Zoning Resolution of 1916, the first of its kind adopted by an American city. Although this behemoth hastened and helped secure the passage of the legislation, especially after the city was forced to lower nearby property values, the desire to check and regulate unrestricted growth dated back to the 1890s when New York’s buildings first began to eclipse the height of Trinity Church.

The movement to enact a zoning law, however, was not solely concerned with issues of height and density. In 1907 the Fifth Avenue Association, a newly formed group of prominent merchants, advocated the restriction of commercial loft development on and around the fashionable street, particularly above Union Square and Madison Square, in an attempt to protect the so-called carriage trade as well as a high-end residential area from the incursion of manufacturing primarily associated with the garment industry. This advocacy led to a succession of other groups, including the Commission on Congestion of Population, the Fifth Avenue Commission, the Heights of Building Commission, and culminating in the Commission on Building Districts and Restrictions, chaired by lawyer Edward M. Bassett, who influenced the initial course of zoning in America to a greater extent than any other individual. Bassett’s organization, citing threats to public health, including a link between tuberculosis and dark working conditions, issued a report in December 1913 advocating height, area, and use restrictions that formed the basis of the law adopted roughly two-and-a-half years later with the solid support of the business community.

​The pioneering zoning resolution established three types of use districts—residential, business, and unrestricted–and five categories of bulk districts. The bulk restrictions were innovative, setting minimum standards for yards and courts, but the site-specific limits on the height of a building by establishing a fixed physical relation between street width and cornice height proved equally crucial to the city’s future. This provision led to an amazing hybrid—street-defining buildings rising according to a prescribed ratio of setbacks following the angle of a sky exposure plane drawn from the center of the street but, inspired by Ernest Flagg’s needle-like forty-seven-story, 612-foot-tall Singer Tower (1908), 149 Broadway, the new zoning provided for buildings of unlimited height if they occupied no more than a quarter of their sites. By standardizing the cornice line, the law held out the promise that the public could anticipate that the city’s streets would once again be as visually coherent as they were when, before the introduction of elevators, building heights were determined by the maximum number of flights of stairs that could be climbed.

​Although heralded at the time as creating “a new era in urban civilization,”[1] as well as being “one of the most progressive and forward-looking steps that has been made by any American city,”[2] the document was rooted in real estate pragmatism. In order to reduce the possibility of legal challenges to the unprecedented measure, the land uses and building densities legislated for an area were typically those already established in it–a fact that not only tended to preclude most social changes no matter how widely sought but also to allow little latitude for evolving use patterns and thereby in many instances stymieing the city’s long-term growth. The law was also complicated and sometimes suffered from inept and even corrupt administration. As architect DeWitt Clinton Pond observed ten years after its adoption, “not more than one percent of the architects in the greater city had any real knowledge of the effect the zoning law would have upon artistic development.”[3] Architects really didn’t grasp this until the collaboration (1920-22) between Harvey Wiley Corbett and Hugh Ferriss produced a series of highly influential drawings, first published in the New York Times, that illustrated the law’s possible effect on the design of the entire city as well as on the individual skyscraper.

​For all its faults, the 1916 law created a remarkably unified streetscape as developers predictably sought to squeeze as much profit as possible from previously unrestricted properties, pushing each new building to fill the prescribed zoning envelope which, given uniform street widths, meant that each building had to follow the same rules. The result: a traditional city initially planned for low-rise buildings could now function as a setting for skyscrapers without losing its essential urbanity. In fact, for forty-six years, the resolution, though sometimes modified to meet unusual situations, imposed a far greater degree of civic order than its proponents could have imagined.

The 1916 ordinance perpetuated an orderly city. The 1961 revision that replaced it did not, to near catastrophic effect. Institutionalizing an urban idea that was thirty years out of date, the 1961 ordinance, promulgated in the very same year that Jane Jacobs’s paean to streets and varied street life was published, held on to the monoculture of single-use districts but abandoned the long valued and fundamentally successful relationship between street width and building height in favor of the abstract concept of Le Corbusier’s Radiant City. Floor area ratios, conforming to its framers’ vision of an “open city” of tall, superscaled buildings isolated from each other in a pattern of plazas, resulted in towers-in-the-park that seemed less like city buildings and more like soldiers in a battle against the essence of the city, changing the previous physical relationship between building and street that had prevailed for over 300 years. As with the 1916 measure, but this time with decidedly negative consequences, the 1961 law influenced new zoning codes across America and, in keeping with New York’s new international prominence and prestige, affected the design of cities worldwide. Since 1961 the “new” zoning ordinance has been fiddled with countless times, especially as its anti-urbanism came to be better understood, so that only very few people—zoning specialists basically—can navigate its complexities. Happily much of the tinkering has brought us back to 1916—and yes, to the once-admired Singer Tower-like needle skyscrapers that are now causing so much concern among citizens who may not fully appreciate how, as a result of purchased air rights, these buildings are contributing to the preservation of the city’s fabric of street-defining, low-rise buildings.

[1] “Building Zones in New York,” World’s Work 32 (September 1916): 487.​

[2] “New York’s Zoning Law,” Outlook 63 (August 19, 1916): 821.

[3] DeWitt Clinton Pond, “Treatment of the ‘Set Back,’” Architecture 54 (October 1926): 293-97.

Robert A.M. Stern is the Founder and Senior Partner of Robert A.M. Stern Architects.


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