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Reflections on the 100th Anniversary of the NYC Zoning Resolution
by Marcie Kesner
Our duty to embrace change

I was born in New York City and have lived here my entire life: in Queens, the Bronx, and Manhattan.  My career as an urban planner has allowed me to study and work with the underlying regulations and physical constraints that make New York.  The centennial of the enactment of the nation’s first zoning ordinance here in New York City is a good opportunity to look back and forward and think about the basics.

The 1916 Zoning Resolution was a milestone for the City and nation.  It led to widespread acceptance of the need for land use regulations throughout the US.  It also dramatically changed the look of the City, truly creating the look of 20th century New York.

When I reflect on the many iterations of New York that I have experienced, I am continually amazed by its capacity for change.  I would, in fact, consider this its defining characteristic and one that we should embrace.  I know that I do.  I would not want to still be living in the homogenous city of my childhood.[1]  I would not want to still be living in the decaying city in which I became an adult, nor in the metropolis struggling to rise (successfully) from the fiscal crisis, nor in the city that suffered in the 1977 black out.  I wouldn’t want to live in the City in which I began my planning career in the late 1970s, a city of wholesale abandonment by rich and poor alike, a city in which vast swaths of neighborhoods were municipally owned by tax default, a city in which there had been virtually no private investment for decades.

New York has thankfully changed, and changed for the better, in my lifetime. I want future generations to have the opportunity to make this a city that responds to their needs—needs that none of us can precisely predict.

I believe that it is our duty—as professionals and as citizens—to embrace change and to use comprehensive planning to allow New York to be a city that can nimbly respond to the challenges of the 21st century.  This may require structural changes in governance, so that New York can better provide for its physical well-being. Neighborhood services should be integrated into plans and, when appropriate, provided by government.  Schools, transit, bridges and tunnels, parks—all should be included in our planning efforts. Preservation of exceptional structures should be embraced.  Climate change and rising sea level must be addressed comprehensively, with coordinated authority and regulations instead of fragmented responsibility by multiple agencies and levels of governments. We should avoid the mistakes of the 1960s, thinking that we can solve national problems on a solely local level even while we do everything within our power to provide equitably for all of those who call New York home.

Zoning is a tool of planning, not planning itself. But as a tool, it has become increasingly cumbersome and opaque. Although development in New York is too large and complicated to be governed by something simple, land use regulations here should be reasonably understandable to an intelligent layperson, not a secret mystery comprehensible by a few. This is good public policy.

When it comes to zoning, I think it is time to recognize that the Zoning Resolution, as it is currently written, needs to be streamlined and clarified. Its format, which worked for a considerably shorter document in 1961, should be revamped. Despite the immense skill of the talented planners in DCP, the current structure has become too unwieldy to provide for clarity and transparency.

Let’s focus on the basics and get them right. We should learn from the well-deserved popularity and usefulness of the Zoning Handbook: perhaps grouping all regulations specific to each zoning district together, limiting cross references, and using tables and bulk diagrams to reduce the sheer number of words. Why not finally update our ancient list of uses—or better, discard it for a more performance-based standard. We can’t conceive of what the future holds and shouldn’t tie the hands of future engines of employment by narrowly defining uses based on today’s economic models. We must update the zoning maps—the current print/pdf versions can often be illegible. Let’s make the Zoning Resolution interactive, building on innovations such as ZOLA. Other cities have done this—New York can, too. We can continue to be leaders and innovators.

Changes in our current Zoning Resolution will not be achieved easily or quickly. It took over a decade for the 1961 zoning to be enacted. We professionals in the private sector need to work with our immensely talented colleagues in the public sector to make this happen. This centennial of the original NYC Zoning Resolution is a good time to begin.  The 2,000-year old aphorism still holds true:  “It is not incumbent on you to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it.” We owe this to future generations of New Yorkers.

[1] (90.7 percent white in 1950).

Marcie Kesner, AICP is a planning and development specialist with the law firm of Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel, LLP.

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