Zoning the Next 100 Years… Or At Least 50
by Mark Ginsberg
How do we improve the Zoning Resolution to accommodate growth?

Climate change is one of the most important issues our society will need to deal with over the next fifty years. To meet the challenges of climate change we will need to permit greater density, allowing cities such as New York to grow. New York’s average per capita carbon footprint is smaller than any other city in the United States; largely because of our high density and well developed mass transportation. This coupled with a population of 8.5 million and growing means that we need to plan for even greater density. The Zoning Resolution should be one part of implementing a plan to address these needs.

The 1916 Resolution permitted a full build-out of about 40 million people. The 1961 Resolution significantly reduced the full buildout to 12 million. The current zoning still permits a build-out which can house about 12 million people. This does not take into account the large areas of the city that are Landmark districts where full build-out is unlikely, making a more realistic estimate somewhere between 10 and 11 million. [1] Given that we will never get to full buildout [2] something needs to give as we approach a city of 9 million in order to accommodate the increasing population.

In addition to planning for a growing city the Zoning Resolution needs to be improved. It was last comprehensively rewritten in 1961 and since then has been continuously added to, becoming bloated and hard to understand for the professional, no less the layman. We have two different systems to determine building envelopes, height factor and contextual. Use regulations, which have not been updated in any systematic way since 1961, are outmoded, overly specific, and generally based on use without performance criteria for issues like noise. So why hasn’t the Resolution been more comprehensively updated? I would argue it is because it has been difficult to find consensus between the different constituents that care about the Resolution, allowing the status quo to largely continue.

The attempt fifteen years ago to update entire sections of the Resolution in the program known as Unified Bulk went down to defeat. More recently Zoning for Quality and Affordability (ZQA) and Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) created major controversy, before passing with between 80 and 90 percent of the original proposal intact.

So what are we to do to improve the Zoning Resolution in a way that would accommodate growth? I suggest a process of public feedback to develop a set of principles for planning the future development of the City—really a comprehensive plan—then systematically, over time, updating the resolution based on this plan. As a model, the 10 Zoning Principles of the Citizen’s Housing & Planning Council (CHPC) provide an example of how to start. Part of this process is a discussion to understand what the Resolution can and cannot do. Once general principles for a new resolution are set, then bite size pieces can be updated. For example:

​Creating much simpler use categories reflecting today’s building programs would simplify and clarify development. It would mean many fewer changes in Certificates of Occupancy when commercial uses are refined, especially when considering program changes that do not have a perceived difference to the general public. This would have the added benefit of many fewer filings to amend Certificates of Occupancies, lightening the load at the Department of Buildings.

​​Another area ripe for updating is the split lot section of the resolution. It is currently unduly complicated, often creating unfortunate results. I would suggest that building mass could be located anywhere on a site, and then interior lot coverage could be averaged between the two parts of a split lot, but the envelope requirements would remain for each part of the lot. This would allow for greater flexibly without creating buildings that are out of scale with each district.

​​Encourage live work districts and reducing single use zoning. This could reduce the burden on the mass transit system. It would also activate areas of the city that become dead zones during-non work hours.

The hurdle to creating a framework for gradual change is it would not happen under one Administration or Chair. As an extended vision for the future, it would need to be able to evolve over time. Improving the Resolution in this way allows it to be more responsive to a changing and growing city—a true legacy for the future of New York

[1] This data has been supplied by NYU’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy.

[2] A city will never get to a full buildout, since that would mean that every property that did not use all of it’s FAR would be added on to or replaced. This often causes significant time periods where no income is earned, making it an unattractive options for the Owner.

​Mark Ginsberg, FAIA, LEEDAP, is a founding partner at Curtis + Ginsberg Architects LLP.


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