The Future of the Zoning Resolution
by Robert S. Cook, Jr.
Where do we go from here?

The New York City Zoning Resolution is celebrating its centennial. The original 1916 Zoning Resolution was in effect for the first 45 years. At the end it was a mere 85 pages long. The current resolution replaced it in 1961. Now 55 years old it is approximately 1300 pages long, not counting appendices and maps. Not only lengthy, the Zoning Resolution is also complex, confusing and usually impenetrable to the uninitiated. Despite periodic pleas to make it shorter, easier to comprehend and more predictable (and, conversely, at the same time more flexible) the Zoning Resolution has been become just the opposite.

What caused 85 pages to morph into a 1300 page behemoth? Here’s what happened: The current zoning came into existence at a time of significant changes for the city and in public expectations. New York City was evolving from a manufacturing to a service economy, shipping was relocating to New Jersey where open land could accommodate containerization, thus opening up the waterfront. More importantly, the environmental and historic preservation movements were coming of age, resulting in a greater focus on the organization, maintenance and appearance of the public and private environments. These movements translated into demands to change the zoning [1] to more closely regulate the form and appearance of buildings and their relationship to each other, and to recognize the special character of various areas, the latter resulting in the creation of some approximately 60 special purpose districts overlaying the existing zoning. The resolution has been used as a tool to create public open space (plaza bonuses), preserve theaters, protect special areas (e.g. Little Italy, Sheepshead Bay, South Richmond, City Island, Long Island City) regulate the relationship of buildings to their neighbors (e.g. the sliver law) and even aspects of their interiors (Quality Housing) and encourage supermarkets (FRESH zoning). As the zoning became more complex, it required further amendments to address unique circumstances that had not been contemplated or predicted. Additionally, the higher density zoning was predicated on the “tower in the park” model, which, experience showed, was not always appropriate, necessitating further zoning amendments.

The cumulative result of all these changes has resulted in an unwieldy, complicated set of rules understood by few and difficult to administer.

Despite the desire to make the Zoning Resolution simpler, more easily understood and more predictable through a wholesale revision, it’s not clear how and when this can happen. Here are the obstacles:

  • Politics:  As much as they may complain about the present zoning, the development and preservation communities and the neighborhoods may be reluctant to open up the zoning to a wholesale revision where their interests could be jeopardized.  Better the devil you know…​

  • Timing:  The sheer magnitude of the task would require years of effort in a fast-changing world where, by its completion, some of the zoning would already be outdated.

  • Practicalities: The current zoning is detailed and lengthy because it addresses an enormous variety of conditions and demands.  It is hard to see how it can be shortened to a few one-size-fits all categories.

  • Political Inertia:  A major revamping of the Zoning Resolution would require the expenditure of an enormous amount of political capital, with the likelihood that the endeavor would yield little or no political benefit to the administration responsible for it, notwithstanding the long term benefits for the city.

Where do we go from here?  We are likely to see a continuation of the current practice, i.e., a series of incremental changes to the zoning over time.  Ongoing expressions of dismay about the current state of the Zoning Resolution will continue, but, in the end, it has served its purpose and will continue to do so, however inefficiently.

[1] In a parallel development the Landmarks Preservation Law was enacted in 1965.

Robert S. Cook, Jr. Robert S. Cook Jr. is a land-use lawyer.  He served as chair of the New York City Bar Association Committee on Land Use Planning and Zoning and currently serves as co-chair of the Zoning Committee of Citizens Housing and Planning Council.  He is the author of a book, “Zoning for Downtown Urban Design” and numerous articles about planning and zoning. He is a partner at Meister Seelig & Fein LLP.


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