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Vision and Legitimacy: The Planning Basis of Zoning
by Ernest Hutton, FAICP, Assoc. AIA
Can the city define its own ‘New York- centric’ planning process?

The purpose of zoning is to provide the implementation framework for a city-wide metropolitan vision. Seen in this light, the current 100-year-old NYC zoning code—in its ad hoc, additive structure and disorganized content—accurately reflects the current contradictory state of the city and its aspirations for the future.

This is not a slur on NYC’s zoning, nor on the City itself, which in its very size and complexity is famously anomalous compared to its other smaller, more cohesive municipal siblings. However, there is an often-expressed concern that in New York, planning takes place primarily through zoning—an often arcane and misunderstood process that defies transparency and bewilders public understanding.

In other areas around the country, in order to give zoning a needed legitimacy, many municipalities are undertaking city-wide planning initiatives. These plans are often mandated by state or local law as a periodic, outreach-based re-evaluation of a city’s status quo and future potential.

Couched as vision or comprehensive plans, these processes are structured to initiate a broad-based dialogue among citizens about their long-term goals—defining issues and opportunities, identifying common agreement based on negotiated areas of consensus, and setting the stage for refined rules and incentives to achieve those common objectives.

  • ​Often, as in Providence, such a plan is based on charrette-like intensive workshops in geographic neighborhood groupings, drawing out local concerns;
  • ​​Or as in New Orleans, long-term planning copes with the dynamic interaction of external natural threats and internal social pressures;
  • ​​Or as in Los Angeles, the vision emerges as a planning commission- initiated series of outreach investigations into pressing topics such as health, transportation and housing,

In New York, the last attempt at such a large-scale plan was the impressive 1969 planning-commission-driven, borough by borough inventory and analysis of the city’s land uses and services. However, this laudable effort stopped short of its next logical step—tackling a broad-based vision for the future.

But four recent larger city initiatives have made strides towards such a common comprehensive planning agenda, although they as yet represent only topical pieces of a whole, rather than an integrated vision:

  • ​Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s green-driven PlaNYC was put in place as an action strategy to bring together city agencies on a variety of joint projects to minimize the city’s environmental footprint and to maximize its energy independence;
  • ​​The city’s Active Design Guidelines, defined through a public-private ‘Fit-City’ initiative sponsored by the NY Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIANY) and related civic organizations, involved multiple city agencies in a multi-year process of using streetscape, building design and infrastructure tools to encourage construction of a healthier environment;
  • ​​Similarly, the post-Sandy SIRR (Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resilience) program was an ambitious multi-borough approach to protecting coastal and riverine areas from flood, surge and rising water level impacts through short, medium and long term projects that varied by location and condition, full implementation of which has been limited by mayoral term of office;
  • ​​Mayor Bill deBlasio’s policy-driven emphasis on affordable housing has focused on the multi-agency Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) approach and the accompanying Zoning for Quality and Affordability (ZQA) regulations and incentives to make implementation possible.

PlaNYC for the most part ignored zoning as an implementation tool, relying instead on interagency agreements, assignments and deadlines. The Active Design program and SIRR did the same, although the Department of City Planning’s subsequent refinement of zoning codes to make healthier and more resilient buildings feasible was a precursor of the deBlasio ZQA approach.

These housing-focused ZQA and MIH approaches rely more on zoning as an administrative tool than as a police power regulation—minimizing previous envelope constraints by providing incentives to support a larger social good, continuing the approach of bonus rewards in return for achieving policy goals.

So the question is can the city define its own ‘New York- centric’ planning process that responds to its unique social, economic and cultural diversity — and can it use this definition of common goals to consolidate their implementation through refinement of its zoning code?

A framework for such a planning approach might have the following attributes:

  • ​Based on an understanding that New York City is a series of communities with varying characteristics, build a ‘bottom-up’ approach focused, for instance, on community boards (the existing ‘197A Plan’ enabling legislation could be expanded to a mandated city-wide system);
  • ​Use this approach to construct a public-private-civic outreach program for each community plan, using a combination of social media surveys and face to face workshops, stressing equity and maximum involvement;
  • ​Integrate this stakeholder and public input and feedback with a step by step, phased planning process, exploring topical issues and opportunities, evaluating optional futures, and arriving at a consensus vision.

Creating such visions—both city-wide and community-specific, which will help define needed policies and desired priorities—can then become an agreed framework for implementation.

  • ​Borrowing a chapter from the recent initiatives previously described, government actions can be defined through interagency assignments and cooperation;
  • ​​But most importantly private development responses to public infrastructure and policy initiatives can be channeled through mutually-accepted zoning constraints and incentives.

True to the evolution of NYC zoning since its 1916 roots, land use and development regulations—both negative police power (what not to do to avoid unwanted impacts) and positive incentives (what to do to encourage public benefits)— will continue as the major regulatory implementation tool for city public- private development.

The major achievement, however, of this renewed emphasis on participation and vision as a solid planning framework will be to reinforce the legitimacy, credibility, and acceptability of zoning as a tool of New York City’s public and community policy that can take the city into a triumphant 21st Century.

Ernest Hutton FAICP Assoc AIA is Principal of Hutton Associates Inc/ Planning Interaction and for 13 years co-chair of the AIANY Planning & Urban Design Committee. The 2015 recipient of the NY Chapter of APA Lawrence Orton career award for excellence in city and regional planning, his professional work has included public-private planning and development projects in Pittsburgh, Charlotte, Roanoke, Knoxville, Charleston and Providence as well as pro bono work on NYC’s Active Design Guidelines, Post-Sandy Initiative, and New York New Visions.

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