For most New Yorkers knowledge of the zoning resolution is something one can live without until something terrible happens: the building near you changes in ways you hate; you are prevented from making a wanted change to your home; people and things around you suddenly change in ways that are unfamiliar and then you discover that zoning is the culprit. And conversely most New Yorkers don’t think much about zoning when they walk to the subway or their favorite shop, wake up to sun pouring through their window, go to their church, mosque or temple, go to a museum, see a play, send kids off to school, or make an unscheduled emergency room visit.
While zoning can get many things wrong, by both design and luck it has gotten so many things right.
In 1916 our city embarked on a zoning resolution to shape the 20th Century New York. It was grounded in the core 20th Century belief that we would grow forever. Our first zoning resolution would lay out planned growth for NYC to accommodate 55 million people (Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis would be 10 years away but it is easy to see the parallel) while protecting us from unregulated height.
And while the Equitable Building at 120 Broadway (now ironically home to the Department of City Planning) is generally identified as the proverbial last straw which provided the impetus to establish the first zoning resolution—it reflected a growing dread of what could happen as a result of the subway system’s growth and expansion. As Edward Bassett noted in his book ZONING in 1936, “Experience had shown that subways tended to increase congestion. The most accessible spots were overbuilt. There was danger that the subways would greatly increase congestion at the same time that they afforded greater distribution in the outlying parts of the city.” And that transit oriented development is now all the rage—encouraged by federal, state, and city governments—it should remind us that planning the future is complex, often frightful, and so easy to get wrong.
And yet it’s shortcomings, so easy to see from 2016, are all the more reason to celebrate the cerebral, simple, insightful, and bold, first Zoning Resolution, and to remember that it was (as our resolution today is) a reflection of our culture and values at the time. And so it envisioned a city where 55 million people could live within its boundaries; where workers desired to live near work—not for convenience of lifestyle as we think of it today—but rather to save on expenses. A city where stores should be prevented from invading apartment houses on the ground floor and, according to Bassett, where business streets would be “invaded by factories, garages, and junk shops. Localities devoted to light industry, perhaps employing women and children, were invaded by heavy industries producing noise, smoke, and fumes.” Child labor evidently need only be protected from proximity to heavy industry, not outlawed; we could help workers save a few pennies each day from their meager wages on transportation to spend on other things like food and shelter—rather than support higher wages; and create better, and more segregated housing for the more affluent seeking elegant apartment house living or their own home with a garden, without any worry about what that would mean for our society. Looking back is easy, looking ahead is so much harder.
So perhaps we can think of our recent zoning struggles to adopt the Zoning for Quality and Affordability and Mandatory Inclusionary Zoning as evidence of only who we are today, seeing the future through our 2016 eyes. Today NYC is a 21st century city struggling to form itself out of not just a 20th century physical design, but from a framework of laws implemented by people largely born of the middle of the 20th century. And so we think, once again, that we will grow forever. Now we turn to zoning to rail against or for affordability, gentrification, families, and mixed income communities. What these words mean and how these ideas will actually affect our neighborhoods into the future we can only guess.
And ironically, as we did in 1916, we still seem to fear tall buildings most of all. Our success or failure at shaping our future will depend on both the design of the resolution itself and a good deal of luck. Perhaps a zoning resolution to shape a 21st century New York will be improved by a new generation of planners, architects, lawyers and residents. They have 85 more years to get it right, if they are lucky.
Jerilyn Perine is an urban planner who is currently the Executive Director of the Citizens Housing & Planning Council. She served as Commissioner of the NYC Department of Housing Preservation & Development for both Mayors Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg. She is an Adjunct Assistant Professor at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University.