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MAS President: New York Needs a New Look at Zoning

New York City Zoning Map - Union Square

With 2011 marking the 50th anniversary of New York’s zoning resolution, MAS President Vin Cipolla urges the City to stop working within an antequated zoning framework and start fresh. His March 21 op-ed in Crain’s New York follows in its entirety.

Revamp rezoning for city’s new age

The zoning resolution of the City of New York turns 50 this year. The resolution, more than any other plan or vision, defines how the city looks. It delineates where people can live and where they can work; it defines how large buildings can be and what shape they can take. Increasingly, zoning has also become a sophisticated public-policy tool, helping to preserve iconic structures like Grand Central Terminal and the High Line, supporting retail corridors in Forest Hills, protecting the topography of Staten Island and opening up access to the waterfront across the city.

The foundation of this document, though, is built on the thinking of an earlier era, when manufacturing uses were largely noxious, TriBeCa was the city’s butter-and-egg center, towers surrounded by vast open space were seen as architecturally innovative, and incorporating the automobile was one of the city’s most pressing challenges.

New York City has changed a great deal over the years, and the zoning resolution has been supplemented and expanded along with it. More than 900 pages have been added over time. It now includes 41 residential zoning districts, 85 commercial districts and 43 special districts. Like our city, this document continues to grow.

By building on an antiquated framework, however, we have created a conflicted, confusing document (which, for instance, still regulates blacksmiths and requires special permits to build a health club—often requiring years for approval and entailing thousands of dollars in consulting fees). As a result, the discussion of what the city of the future should look like is often restricted to those with the expertise to understand the zoning resolution, not those who are most affected by it.

Fifty years later, our view of our city is much richer. We more fully appreciate the city’s diverse neighborhoods, we understand that the most successful developments are those that are thoughtfully incorporated into those neighborhoods, and we better appreciate the value of historic preservation.

But in 2011, we also have new challenges that need to be recognized and confronted. How do we develop communities in an environmentally sensitive manner? How do we guarantee that affordable housing is not simply the result of a lottery process? How do we retain vital industries? Include the public in decisions about their communities? Ensure that as residents move into a neighborhood, services such as schools are there to support them? Zoning cannot provide all the solutions, but it can be refocused to address these and other issues more comprehensively.

So where do we go from here? New York needs a new zoning resolution for a new era. This is a significant undertaking that must be handled outside of the usual political and bureaucratic framework.

The mayor should create a task force charged with rethinking the zoning resolution. This panel must represent the complete interests of the city, including community representatives, elected officials, city planners, architects, academics and real estate interests, among others. The resulting document should be for all New Yorkers, making clear the rules—and goals—for neighborhoods, while reorienting us to focus on the challenges and priorities of this moment in our history.

There will be significant hurdles, but the result will ensure a more livable city for all New Yorkers.