The Municipal Art Society of New York (MAS) enjoys a unique position in the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the New York City Zoning Resolution. MAS was established twenty-three years before its adoption and five years before New York was established as a consolidated city; our founders played an integral role in the creation of the nation’s first zoning code. “We have got to build a city fifty years or one hundred years ahead,” declared future MAS President George McAneny, while serving as the Manhattan Borough President in 1910. McAneny envisioned “a great city plan contemplating all future developments for our city, the laying out of new boulevards, subways, waterfronts, avenues, and streets, even into the distant future.”
Much like the city whose development it has shaped, the history behind the creation of the Zoning Resolution is rife with misunderstandings, contradictions, conflicting agendas, and compromise. The notion that the zoning code was instituted as an antidote to the unhealthy conditions in the poor immigrant tenement neighborhoods of lower Manhattan remains the most commonly perpetuated misconception. Although considerations of light, air, health, and safety certainly would contribute to the well-being of all New Yorkers, these benefits were promoted at the time to sell the idea of a zoning code to the public and city officials. Ultimately, it was the defense of real estate values that was the primary motivation for conceiving the Zoning Resolution.
The construction of the Equitable Building on lower Broadway in 1915, often cited as the singular event that lead to the establishment of the zoning code, is only part of the story. It is true that the 40-story building cast a shadow a fifth of a mile long and blocked sunlight in office buildings across Broadway up to the twenty-first floor. However, it was only when tenants began abandoning affected buildings in search of better office space and the City was forced to reduce tax assessments that realtors realized limiting building height and reducing shadow impacts was in their best interest. The subsequent spate of reassessments downtown fueled the idea that the unrestricted proliferation of skyscrapers threatened the city’s financial well-being.
Ironically, many among the consortium of bankers, business owners, and civic leaders who pushed the City to eventually adopt the zoning code were initially opposed to the idea because they thought it would lower property values. Notwithstanding, realtors quickly began to understand that a zoning code, far from driving property values down, was actually needed to raise them.
Over the next half century, the Zoning Resolution endured the Great Depression, two world wars, and the explosive growth of the suburbs before the first significant update in 1961. The political and social upheaval of the 1960s and further advancements in technology, science, and environmental regulations posed challenges to the city that were largely unknown at the turn of the previous century. In addition, planning principles had evolved, and the concept of incentive zoning was favored.
The recent zoning amendments for Mandatory Inclusionary Housing and Zoning for Quality and Affordability reflect City efforts to utilize zoning to promote equitable housing opportunities in a place that has grown too expensive for far too many of its residents. Waterfront zoning regulations, established and refined over the past twenty years, have helped reconnect residents and visitors to the city’s shoreline and transform areas once relegated to factories and other industrial uses into thriving mixed-use neighborhoods.
Despite all of the advances and changes to the built environment over the last one hundred years, many of the original concerns prevalent in 1916 ring true today. Building heights, as evidenced by the proliferation of “supertall” residential towers, remain a primary concern. Out-of-scale and up-scale developments still threaten the socioeconomics and character of vulnerable neighborhoods. Skyrocketing land values and the pressure to build threaten our valuable historic assets and open space. The debate remains whether zoning provides equitable benefits among those who have the most to gain by rising real estate values and those who have the fewest resources to protect their environment.
In light of this, the role that MAS and other civic organizations play in fighting for the public interest and equitable zoning practices is more essential than ever. Like the city itself, the Zoning Resolution is neither perfect nor finite. It is a work in progress. As we reflect on the past and imagine the future of how the Zoning Resolution will continue to shape the city, George McAneny’s words from over a century ago remain true: we still need to build a city fifty years or one hundred years ahead.
Gina Pollara is an architect, author, and urban designer, and the President of the Municipal Art Society.