On City Planning

By Bradley Nichols,2014-02-10 06:25
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On City Planning

City Planning

    In his April 1999 speech on zoning reform, City Planning Commission Chairman Joseph B. Rose proposed sweeping changes to the city’s Zoning Resolution designed to replace confusing, anachronistic and often contradictory regulations with rules that are intelligible, practical and consistent. It seeks to uphold values of urban form, streetscape, neighborhood character and scale, while also assuring that New York City is able to grow and develop the housing, commercial space and community facilities that its economy and populace require. The goal of the proposal is to establish reasonable parameters for new development that give communities, developers and regulators a clear sense of what is and is not allowed in a given district, while allowing appropriate flexibility in the design of individual buildings. The numerous loopholes and interpretive gymnastics yielded by the present zoning will be eliminated. A public review and approval process will allow for sufficient flexibility to address unique conditions and allow for architectural innovation.

    Issues with the Current Zoning

    The current zoning generally sets appropriate controls on the amount of floor area that can be built, but the rules governing building height and massing reflect several competing visions of the city's development, often applied simultaneously in the same zoning districts. This confusing situation has developed over the years, as the City Planning Commission has repeatedly adopted amendments to limit or provide alternatives to the "tower-in-the-park" prototype underlying the 1961 Zoning Resolution. Tower-in-the-park zoning encourages the construction of tall buildings set back from the street, by allowing greater height and more floor area in return for the provision of open space. The resulting buildings have been subject to widespread criticism as anti-urban and disruptive of the dominant form and scale of most of the city's neighborhoods that were built largely under the original 1916 Zoning Resolution. Rather than eliminating tower-in-the-park zoning, the Commission has, over the years, taken an indirect approach, encumbering the 1961 Resolution with limited height districts, contextual districts, tower-on-a-base provisions, infill zoning and special districts, among other innovations. While generated with the best intentions, these zoning reforms have in the aggregate produced an unduly complex, incoherent and unpredictable set of regulations. Only experts understand the Zoning Resolution, and they often disagree on its meaning. The average citizen or property owner has little hope of determining how a particular parcel of land may be developed.

    Not surprisingly, such zoning periodically yields unexpected and undesirable results in the form of buildings that are so big they violate the character of the neighborhoods around them. A number of specific features of the existing zoning contribute to this problem: Zoning lot mergers are critical to the successful functioning of the zoning. They enable developers to assemble small lots into the larger merged lots needed to build efficient, economical new buildings. The mergers also provide an incentive to preserve small existing buildings that are not built to the full permitted floor area, by enabling the transfer of the

    unused floor area from the site of the small building to the development site. However, the shifting of excessive amounts of floor area to a development site from the already developed portion of a merged zoning lot has, in some instances, produced buildings out-of-scale with their neighbors.

    Many development sites straddle zoning districts. The rules governing the development of these "split lots" are confusing and too permissive. As a result, split lots have provided an excuse for erasing the distinctions between different zoning districts, transferring inappropriately large amounts of floor area and producing oversized buildings. The scale of buildings can also be affected by the increasingly sophisticated technology new commercial buildings contain. Much of the space occupied by this equipment is treated as "mechanical space" and is deducted from the zoning floor area of a building under the existing zoning. In some cases, these deductions enabled a building to become much larger than is contemplated in the zoning.

    Many public spaces provided for in the Zoning Resolution have been successful, but floor area bonuses for residential plazas and certain other public spaces have too often produced larger buildings without providing meaningful public benefits.

    Contextual rules in some low-density districts apply to residences, but not to community facilities and commercial buildings. This reflects the fact that these nonresidential buildings require more bulk to fulfill their programmatic requirements. Zoning should recognize these differences in shape and size, but also place reasonable limits on their impact on surrounding communities.

    The realization of some of the less appealing possibilities inherent in the 1961 zoning appears with greater frequency now, because market conditions are more favorable than in most of the preceding 40 years and good development sites are in ever shorter supply. With each successive boom in the city’s real estate economy, developers use the opportunities that remain in the 1961 zoning to build taller and bigger buildings. Now more than ever, reforms are needed to rebalance the zoning regulation and development economics.


    The goal of the zoning reform proposal was to produce zoning consistent with the following underlying principles:

    The Zoning Resolution should contain the simplest regulations compatible with the city's planning objectives.

    Height and setback controls should be designed to prevent new buildings from disrupting the prevailing character of communities in ways that are not anticipated in the zoning. In the highest-density areas with post-1961 towers, outside the central business districts, towers should be permitted, but should not continue to rise to ever-greater heights.

    Each zoning district, outside designated central business districts, should have height and setback regulations that provide certainty for residents, property owners and developers that future development will not exceed clearly defined limits. The height and setback controls must provide effective caps on as-of-right building size that cannot be undermined by zoning lot mergers, deductions of mechanical space from floor area and other means. Development proposals that seek to exceed these limits should be subject to public review. The new zoning should not impede development of the housing, commercial buildings and community facilities needed to accommodate the people living and working in the city. Specifically, the new zoning should accommodate the least costly building types at different densities, consistent with the city's planning objectives, particularly in low-density and medium-density districts where development is highly sensitive to costs and should allow for design flexibility and innovation while respecting the character of existing communities. Public comments on the zoning reform proposal indicated widespread support for these goals. Nevertheless, on several issues, particularly how best to regulate the height of new developments, a sufficient consensus has not yet been reached. Therefore, the Department bifurcated the proposal creating a new application (N000244(B1) ZRY) that moved forward those portions of the text amendment on which there was consensus and that could be adopted independent of other elements of the proposal. On July 26, 2001, application N 0002444(B1) ZRY was approved by the City Council. The rest of the zoning text amendment remains before the Commission for further consideration.

    2Economic development in Asia is accompanied by adverse environmental impacts. More evidence is becoming available on the harmful impact of air pollution on public health in Asia and the associated economic and social costs. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the overall number of premature deaths due to ambient air pollution in Asia is about 500,000 per year. The associated economic costs due to premature deaths and other impacts of air pollution run into hundreds of millions of dollars for each Asian mega-city.

    Asian countries and cities have started to address air pollution. They, however, in many cases continue to rely on the assistance of international development agencies and nongovernment organizations to address the challenges of local air pollution, transboundary air pollution, and the increase of greenhouse gases. The development community has responded positively.

    Proof of this is the more than 20 regional initiatives and programs working on air quality issues in the Asian region.

    There is little coordination and cooperation among these initiatives. It is not unusual to discover initiatives and programs implementing projects covering similar themes and focusing on similar cities or countries. In order to effectively address air pollution issues in Asia, there is a need for these initiatives and programs to coordinate and cooperate with each other and to start a dialogue on the air quality management priorities for Asia. The Clean Air Initiative for Asian Cities (CAI-Asia) promotes the strengthening of air quality management in Asia by

    sharing experiences and building partnerships. To promote dialogue among the regional

    initiatives and programs on AQM, CAI-Asia is organizing the First Coordination Meeting of

    Regional Programs and Initiatives on Air Quality Management in Asia.

    CAI-Asia collected in May June 2004 information on the regional initiatives in Asia and

    their air quality projects. The objective of the data collection was to determine the geographic and thematic scope of these initiatives, as well as possible overlaps. The results of the survey have been collated into the first draft of the Compendium of Air Quality Management Projects in Asia. The data collected will also be accessible through the CAI-Asia website at

    OBJECTIVES [top]

    The objectives of the coordination meeting are to identify air quality management

    priorities for Asia and to strengthen the coordination and cooperation among regional

    programs and initiatives.


    During the meeting, the results of the regional initiatives survey carried out by

    CAI-Asia will be presented. The presentation includes a geographic and thematic analysis of the regional air quality initiatives.

    Ample time is allotted for discussion on the expected outputs of the meeting: (1) the future AQM priorities for regional initiatives in terms of thematic and geographical coverage, (2) mechanisms for better sharing of information between and among initiatives leading to a

    common knowledge base, (3) mechanisms for improved coordination in the implementation

    of projects and studies, especially at the national and city level, and (4) common approaches to fund-raising, with the general aim of increasing the amount of funds available for air quality management in Asia.

    The meeting is expected to be the beginning of a process of continuous dialogue, which will continue at the Better Air Quality (BAQ) 2004 workshop in Agra, India, 6-8 December 2004. The results of the meeting and its expected follow-up in December 2004 will also be an input to the development of a CAI-Asia policy paper on AQM in Asia. Efforts are underway to bring the policy paper to the attention of the participants of the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on Environment in March, 2005.

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