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Zoning – The First 100 Years
by William Stein, FAIA
The sometimes uneasy balance between development and neighborhood character.

Zoning provides a framework that shapes our buildings and the city. Since its inception, the NYC Zoning Resolution has reflected the planning priorities and social needs of each era—from the iconic stepped “ziggurat” buildings of the 1920’s, to the towers and plazas of the 1960’s, to contextual zoning, to the new Zoning for Quality and Affordability and Mandatory Inclusionary Housing provisions. The Resolution has evolved in response to the city’s growth, balancing development pressures with preserving the character and scale of neighborhoods.

​The 1916 Resolution was a response to mounting concerns about increased density and loss of light and air, precipitated in part by construction of the 42 story, 538 ft. high Equitable Building—now, fittingly enough, the home to the Department of City Planning (DCP). By the 1950’s planning priorities had changed: the prototype International Style “tower-in-the-park” enabled large, air-conditioned office floor plates and used incentive zoning to provide additional floor area in return for public amenities, such as plazas. These factors, along with a recognition of the city’s continued growth, emphasized open space and led to the 1961 Resolution.

​In the 1980’s increasing concerns about neighborhood scale led to contextual zoning and the Quality Housing Program, emphasizing the relationship of new development to existing buildings and streetscapes, while promoting residential amenities such as recreation space and day-lit corridors. Similarly, attitudes about uses have changed: in the early 20th century the priority was separating residential uses from noxious industrial ones, while today mixed use development is valued to enliven the urban experience. The recent, innovative ZQA and MIH provisions address the city’s urgent need for affordable housing, while encouraging flexibility in design that contributes to the character and quality of neighborhoods.

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​As NYC has grown and become a more complex place, the Zoning Resolution has become a much more complex document. The 1916 Resolution comprised 12 pages. The 1961 Zoning Resolution, which remains the structure for today’s regulations, expanded to 420 pages, including maps. Today’s three volume Resolution (now often accessed on the very useful Department of City Planning website) clocks in at almost 1,300 pages plus appendices, plus maps.

​While this complexity reflects the complexity of the city and tries to find a sometimes uneasy balance between promoting appropriate development and maintaining neighborhood character, it can frustrate practitioners and make the development process more confusing and less transparent to the public.

​Perhaps in a complex urban environment with competing and often conflicting needs, there is no easy way to simplify land use regulation. But increased use of digital tools to map and visualize the building forms resulting from regulation and to illustrate the regulations may help. The resources available on the Department of City Planning’s (DCP) web site represent a start in this direction. Digital tools may allow practitioners and the public to actively interact with zoning regulations, visualizing alternatives, understanding the intent and consequences of planning proposals.​

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​Along with increased use of digital tools, the future of zoning lies in more community based planning. DCP’s current East New York Neighborhood Plan and East Harlem Neighborhood Study are two examples of planning and zoning changes that have involved extensive community outreach and participation. Planning will continue to become more broadly based, taking into account more diverse views. Reaching consensus may not be easy, but community based planning will give planning proposals and zoning regulations more legitimacy.

For an architect working in NYC, zoning is at once the starting point for design, at times a brake on the imagination, but also an inspiration to be more creative and to think more broadly about how buildings fit into the context of neighborhoods and the city.

William Stein, FAIA, is a Principal at Dattner Architects.

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