New York City enacted the first metropolitan Zoning Resolution more than a century ago. The city has changed and expanded in the decades since, and the construction codes and zoning laws that govern how businesses and residents use its spaces have changed along with it.
Here, we will explore more than 100 years of NYC zoning history and examine some of the regulatory sea of changes that have shaped the city’s physical makeup. Let’s first start with some key terms and foundational knowledge.
Glossary of terms
Bulk regulations: Laws that address building size/shape.
Department of City Planning: An agency of the City of New York charged with administering land use policy, primarily through the New York City Zoning Resolution.
Development: A defined term within the Zoning Resolution that can include the construction of a new building or structure, the relocation of an existing structure and the establishment of a new open use.
Floor area ratio (FAR): The total floor area on a zoning lot divided by the zoning lot area.
Height factor: The total floor area of a building divided by the lot coverage. Primarily a calculation used for multi-family residential buildings.
Lot coverage: The percentage of a lot that a structure covers, excluding any permitted obstructions.
The New York City Zoning Resolution: The official law containing all of New York City’s Zoning requirements.
Setback: The distance between a building and the street, either at grade level or above.
Use: The activity or purpose associated with a structure. The NYC Zoning Resolution recognizes 18 different groups of uses. All permitted uses can be found in Appendix A of the Zoning Resolution.
Use groups: Sets of structures with similar associated activities or purposes. There are seven general categories of use groups: residential (uses 1-2), community facility (uses 3-4), retail and service (uses 5-9), regional commercial centers and amusements (uses 10-12), waterfront and recreation (uses 13-15), heavy automotive (use 16) and industrial (uses 17-18).
Zoning districts: There are three basic zoning districts:
- Commercial: Retailers, service providers and offices populate commercial districts. Residential and community facility uses are also permitted in these districts, but manufacturing uses are not.
- Manufacturing: NYC boasts three levels of manufacturing districts, based on the intensity of industrial use. These districts are home to a variety of industrial uses such as warehouses and maritime industrial uses. These uses are subject to specific performance standards that articulate the maximum allowed light, noise, odor, smoke and vibration levels. Some commercial uses are permitted in these districts, but residential uses are not.
- Residence: Accounting for 75% of NYC’s land area, residence districts accommodate various home types, from single-family houses to mixed-use apartment buildings. Manufacturing uses are not permitted in these districts, and commercial uses are only permitted if the Residential district has a Commercial overlay.
1916: New York City initiates the U.S.’s first citywide zoning code
NYC implemented the nation’s first Zoning Resolution in 1916 to ensure air and light could reach city streets, even in the shadow of behemoth skyscrapers. Urban planners, property owners and residents in all five boroughs lobbied for the regulation, which included height and setback requirements and banned certain projects in established residential areas through exclusionary zoning rules.
Metropolitan areas across the country followed in NYC’s footsteps and adopted similar laws. Meanwhile, the city flourished under the Resolution. Architects like Hugh Ferriss developed new design strategies based on the regulation, erecting tiered Art Deco buildings — these came to be called setback skyscrapers — with high interior volumes and compact footprints. In short, the Resolution laid the literal groundwork for old New York and many other American cities.
Photo Credit: NYPL
The next points go into two issues that the 1916 Zoning Resolution addressed.1916: Concern for Quality of Life
The Resolution led to the widespread embrace of low-rise buildings and plazas, particularly in residential neighborhoods subject to exclusionary zoning rules. Here, structure heights had to be proportionate to street widths and towers could not occupy entire lots.
These restraints forced designers and developers to pursue projects with pedestrian-friendly exterior environments that let in air and light and improved quality of life.
These spaces became all the rage — from Chicago to Shanghai, cities across the globe began green-lighting projects centered around low-rise structures and plazas.
Photo Credit: NYPL
1916: Keeping things Residential
The Resolution also acted as a check on commercial encroachment. Manufacturing and retail businesses began establishing outposts in residential neighborhoods throughout NYC over the late 19th and early 20th centuries, leading to street and sidewalk congestion. The Resolution addressed this issue through exclusionary zoning and drastically reduced residential foot traffic.
Photo Credit: NYPL
1922: A Standard State Zoning Enablement Act is passed
The U.S. Department of Commerce took exclusionary zoning nationwide in 1922 through the implementation of the Standard State Zoning Enabling Act. President Herbet Hoover, then the Secretary of Commerce, spearheaded the advisory committee that crafted the regulation, which experts typically trace back to the Zoning Resolution in 1916.
Photo Credit: Public Domain
1936: The City Planning Commission is created
NYC established the City Planning Commission in 1936. The body began operating in 1938 with seven members, all appointed by then-Mayor Fiorello Henry La Guardia. The commission focused on macro urban planning developments and oversaw related responsibilities, including managing city map changes, litigating land use, commissioning environmental reviews, advising local government bodies on issues related to city development and real estate, and designating landmarks and historic districts.
Photo Credit: NYPL
1961: The 1961 Zoning Resolution is established
NYC updated the original 1916 Zoning Resolution in 1961. The new regulations, which the city developed in partnership with residents and researchers, addressed some of the most pressing urban planning issues of the time — most notably, overcrowding. Architect George McAneny and attorney Edward Bassett, the two men who developed the 1916 Resolution, underestimated just how many people the city would be able to accommodate over time. The 1961 Resolution included an incentive zoning program meant to encourage developers to construct open public spaces that would clear up sidewalk congestion. It also divided the city into three distinct zones, commercial, manufacturing and residential, and included language that would allow designers and developers to erect taller office buildings with wide-open floor plans. The 1961 Resolution addressed the automotive revolution too, establishing the first formalized parking requirements.
In all, the updated regulation showed that new ideas and challenges required zoning change. The next two points will cover some of the revised regulations included in the 1961 Resolution and go into detail about the events that necessitated their inclusion. Photo Credit: NYPL1961: Incorporation of parking requirements
An estimated 3.3 million automobiles were navigating American roads when NYC implemented the 1916 Resolution. By 1961, that figure had grown to more than 63 million. While the central parts of the city had adapted to vehicle traffic, residential neighborhoods on the outskirts of NYC lacked the legal and physical infrastructure needed to accommodate car culture. The 1961 Resolution addressed this issue via off-street parking and loading regulations and requirements.
Photo Credit: NYPL1961: Emphasis on the creation of public space
Incentive zoning was introduced in order to encourage the creation of public plazas in the City. The general idea of incentive zoning, now known as Privately Owned Public Spaces (POPS), is that the developers are afforded a “bonus”—which usually comes in the form of added floor space. Some of the additions developers could use to get awarded a bonus were as follows: adding public plazas or visual or performing arts spaces, making improvements to the subway, or preserving theaters.
Photo Credit: NYPL
1965: Landmark Preservation Committee is created
Beginning in 1963, construction crews dismantled the original Pennsylvania Station, an eight-acre Beaux-Arts transportation center many considered an architectural marvel. Despite its standing in the community — concerned citizens vigorously protested the demolition — the structure fell, deconstructed over a three-year period to make way for Madison Square Garden. This episode, along with other traumatic architectural losses, catalyzed the NYC historic preservation movement and led to the creation of the Landmarks Preservation Committee, whose 11 members convened for the first time in 1965.
1971: The Soho artist-in-residence law is passed
The NYC City Planning Commission adopted new zoning regulations in 1971 that allowed artists to access subsidized, joint living spaces and studios in Soho. The law established two special zoning district within the neighborhood, M1-5A and M1-5B, where city-certified artists could rent affordable lofts and continue contributing to the local culture that made Soho a housing hotspot.
Recently, the Department of City Planning has been working with the community to develop a plan to make zoning law changes to the Soho/Noho neighborhoods in order to accommodate the ground-floor retail demands of today.
1993: Waterfront zoning regulations go into effect
With inland population densities increasing and viable interior lots drying up, NYC developers began looking to the 578 miles of waterfront property ringing the city’s five boroughs during the early 1990s. The NYC City Planning Commission took action to ensure that projects here were pedestrian-friendly, introducing new zoning regulations in 1993 requiring the establishment of waterfront public access areas.
Photo Credit: Wikipedia
2007: Enhanced POPS standards are released
Although NYC had emphasized the development of public plazas for decades, many of the resulting spaces lacked basic amenities or included design elements that inhibited usability. The city addressed these issues in 2007 by rolling out revised POPS standards, which outlined ideal design elements — open sidewalks, accessible spaces, safety and security features and comfortable and engaging amenities — and included voluntary plaza redesign or modification processes to encourage adoption.
2013: Flood Resilience Zoning regulation is introduced
Hurricane Sandy caused more than $70 million in damage after coming ashore in October 2012. Flooding was responsible for most of the destruction, as storm waters inundated huge swaths of NYC, including many inland areas. Then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg issued an executive order Jan. 31, 2013, that suspended some existing zoning regulations to stimulate rebuilding efforts. The NYC City Planning Commission transformed this action into the Flood Resilience Zoning Text Amendment in October 2013, which included the provisions from the original executive order, along with new flood-resilient building and land use requirements.
2017: Midtown East rezoning proposal is approved
On Aug. 9, 2017, the NYC City Council approved an extensive rezoning strategy for the eastern section of Midtown Manhattan. The plan encouraged developers to build high-quality office space, redesign existing stock and invest in transportation improvements through generous floor area ratio (FAR) bonuses. It also included the creation of a new special purpose subdistrict: the East Midtown Subdistrict.
In the decades since NYC implemented the 1916 Zoning Resolution, local regulations have evolved with the times. The emergence of supertall buildings, falling affordable housing unit availability and waterfront rezoning have changed local zoning laws. And newer developments — rezoning in Midtown East, Noho and Soho, for example — will undoubtedly catalyze more change across NYC’s physical landscape.
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