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The Zoning Resolution at 50, and some lessons from Philadelphia, where a new zoning plan makes sure to incorporate community input

On June 8, the Municipal Art Society, along with the New York City Bar Association and American Planning Association New York Metro Chapter, sponsored a decorous panel on the history and future of zoning in New York, with continuing education credits for lawyers and planners.

Looking through an Atlantic Yards lens, it was another reminder that other cities, in this case Philadelphia, are making a greater commitment to public input, reflect greater respect for such input, and have powerful civic institutions that counterbalance government and the private sector.

Philadelphia, with a 1.5 million population (less than one-fifth the size of New York’s 8 million) and a less dense cityscape, may not pose a direct parallel--indeed, New York may be sui generis.

But it still was notable to hear Philadelphia’s Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development Alan Greenberger emphasize the importance and value of public input.

Behind zoning

The zoning resolution, passed in 1961, is the closest thing to a comprehensive plan that New York City has, according to the MAS. But it’s not much of a plan, given that it has grown enormously--by 900 pages--with numerous amendments. Does it still adequately and comprehensively address the challenges the city faces today?

In introducing the panel, MAS President Vin Cipolla suggested that the current City Planning Commission (CPC), led by Amanda Burden, has pursued far more rezonings--upzonings and downzonings--and probably done the best job in the history of the CPC to balance the imperatives of growth and the preservation of neighborhood character.

Needless to say, Atlantic Yards, in which the city willingly allowed the unelected Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) to override city zoning and to bypass the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), went unmentioned.

DCP take

As he did last summer at the Charter Revision Commission hearing on land use, where he praised the status quo regarding ULURP as “strong and robust,” The general counsel for the Department of City Planning, David Karnovsky, endorsed the status quo.

He pointed out, not unreasonably, that such plans can freeze a vision for the city, and in that case, was already out of date, promoting a “towers in the park vision” that, tellingly, that year was epically skewered by Jane Jacobs’s landmark The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Moreover, “we are living in a city that really is built out,” he said. “Today we live in a mature city,” with the challenge of conserving and managing an “extraordinary inventory of neighborhoods... a comephensive rezoning would, I think, result in some of the same cookie cutter approaches.”

So he recommended proceeding “carefully and laboriously and in incremental fashion.” He noted that the arguments for a new resolution don’t call for a radical re-visioning, but maintain that the document is too large and complex to be understood.

There’s no question it's large and complex, he said, but “but complexity reflects the city... Cookie cutter approaches don't work.”

Yes, it needs to be updated and clarified, he agreed, but not via a comprehensive rewrite.

What happened 50 years ago

Karnovsky noted that, in the late 1950s, there was an obvious need to adapt the initial 1916 resolution--which aimed to fight massive buildings in Lower Manhattan that blocked light and air but wound up producing “wedding cake” style buildings of stepped pyramids. Such buildings had by then become considered inefficient and passe. And the zoning resolution in many cases did not separate uses between commercial, industrial, and residential.

Moreover, the city was facing demographic change and suburbanization, with a decline in the industrial economy and the departure of the middle class. “There was a sense that the city was too old and obsolete to compete and thrive,” he said, so the 1916 resolution was seen as a drawback.

The 1961 resolution, in a sense, represented a “massive downzoning,” since it was designed for a city of 12 million residents, while the 1916 resolution prepared for 55 million residents. The 1961 also addressed the issue of cars, establishing minimum parking requirements.

“The irony is that the '61 resolution ended up substituting one orthodoxy for another, remaining the city in the International modernist style,” he said. “The problem was the ‘61 resolution was not designed to respond to the city as it is, but to remake the city as it should be.”

Since then, there’s been a plethora of finer-grained responses, with height districts, special districts, and contextual zoning. “If there's any overall lesson, it's that FAR [Floor Area Ratio] matters, but so does form... and form is the way people react to the built environment.”

The 1961 rezoning actually added to land area for industry, anticipating the need for single level modern factory space, but the city’s economy changed enormously, with a new emphasis on loft zoning.
What now?

“The point is not that that the ‘61 resolution is a dinosaur and in need of overhaul, it's that it doesn't really exist any more,” Karnovsky declared.

“With the over 100 rezonings that have taken in place in this administration, and the various text changes, our rules are significantly tilted toward contextualism and the active streetscape.” And the city has pursued growth in neighborhoods well-served by transit, like Downtwon Brooklyn, Jamaica, and Hudson Yards.

While 1961 “was fundamentally a top-down exercise,” he said, “what we do today is a far cry form that,” suggesting that the process is to try to understand local needs while at the same time pursuing city objectives. (At the Charter Revision Commission, critics like Tom Angotti said too little attention is paid to neighborhood voices.)

Karnovsky also said DCP has begun to pursue other goals, such as affordable housing (via inclusionary zoning), food access, alternative transportation, and green technologies. DCP is also studying parking regulations--which many see as promoting the use of cars even in transit-rich neighborhoods.

“If zoning needs to continue to be adapted to emerging needs, let's continue that process,” he said. “But if the idea is to start from scratch, I think we should think twice.”

Lessons from midtown

Former deputy director of urban design for DCP Michael Parley helped craft the rules for the development of Midtown and has been a consultant on many of the city’s recent skyscrapers. He showed how the zoning resolution, initially a slender volume, has grown to 1270 pages, which is 1000 pages more than in 1961.

“I agree with David, this is not bad, this is complexity that we need,” Parley said.

The firm that wrote the 1958 report that became the new zoning resolution praised modern buildings like Lever House, but didn't examine the impact on the city if they were replicated. “They were singular acts in the streetscape,” he said.

The special district for Midtown is extremely complex, but it has to be to get results. “As David points out, this is what City Planning has been doing over many years, under an accelerated pace under Commissioner Burden,” Parley said.

Lessons from Philadelphia

The third speaker was Greenberger, an architect who formerly headed Philadelphia’s City Planning Commission and is now deputy mayor for economic development. (Imagine that transition in New York, where the economic development people tend to be hardcore businesspeople.)

Nearly every major city has a 50-year updating effort. “We also didn't have a comprehensive plan,” he said, and Philadelphia has just published a comprehensive plan, which he said “ goes hand in hand with zoning.” (The implication is that zoning does not substitute for a plan.)

Not only was Philadelphia’s zoning code “full of amazing anachronisms,” referencing abattoirs and tanneries, but there have been so many adaptations to the code that some 40% of the volume of applications require a zoning variance, which “makes the Zoning Board of Adjustment, which is supposed to be sitting on hardship matters, a de facto planning agency.”

Four years ago, city voters approved a ballot measure establishing a 31-member Zoning Code Commission, which hired local and national consultants to developer reform efforts, with the goals that the code:
  • provide consistency and understandability
  • make future construction and development more predictable
  • encourage high quality positive development
  • preserve the character of existing neighborhoods
  • involve the public in development decisions.
After “a ton of civic engagement,” including 36 meetings the number of zoning districts has been consolidated from 55 to 30, and the number of overlay zoning districts from 30 to 11.

“We invented a lot of new process,” he added, “to organize input into projects that have larger impacts.” He noted that some communities have very sophisticated mechanisms, while others don’t.

They’ve also created a design review process for projects of high impact, a provision developers “really hated,” but have come around to understand. And the city is cutting parking requirements down dramatically, particularly for the city center.

The first public hearing by the City Council is this week, with the hope it all will be passed in a few months. Greenberger noted that “we punted on sign controls, because there is no issues that creates greater arguments than signs.” That will be addressed separately.

The web site Zoning Matters was initially developed to educate and inform the public about the need for zoning reform, and was funded by a grant from the William Penn Foundation. With the passage of the voter referendum to create a Zoning Code Commission, the site was revised in order to follow the progress of the Zoning Code Commission as members are appointed and they begin their work.

How they got there

The question on New Yorkers’ minds, as Cipolla articulated, was how Philadelphia got such a big, nuanced undertaking done, even with a supportive mayor.

“There was a growing movement of people interested in reform, of zoning, of planning,” Greenberger said, many coming from the Design Advocacy Group, which has a somewhat similar function to the MAS.

“Most critical is that there was a big powerful foundation very interested in this kind of issue,” he said of the William Penn Foundation.

No such foundation plays a similar role in New York, I'd point out.

And the Philadelphia City Planning Commission last week adopted the city-wide vision portion of a new comprehensive plan , according to PlanPhilly, an independent news organization affiliated with PennPraxis, the clinical arm of the School of Design of the University of Pennsylvania.

Community engagement

Asked about community engagement, Greenberger commented,“I’m often surprised how community members get it right.”

“We need their input,” he added. “It’s not Should we or shouldn’t we? It’s We must find an organized way to get it.”

Community members, he observed, seem less interested in details and veto power than simply to be heard. “They’re deeply concerned with individual respect.”

“People don’t trust government,” he noted. “People don’t trust developers. They’re not wrong, many times.”

That might resonate in Brooklyn.

Did zoning in NYC work out?

What took so long for zoning reform? Not only did planners’ ambition decline in the wake of Jacobs’s criticisms, and federal funds for urban renewal declined, Greenberger suggested.
Cipolla asked Karnovsky if the dire predictions from a 1991 conference on zoning in New York had been borne out.

Karnovsky cited “a sense of pessimism, even in 1991, about the capacity of city to change the zoning and make it more coherent and workable.” However, “I think that recent history shows it's not true.”

Can zoning promote great architecture, Cipolla asked Parley.

“Zoning is not an instrument for great architecture,” Parley responded. “Good zoning allows great architecture if there's a desire to produce it... So you want to have a zoning that's flexible enough to allow for great architecture but prevent deleterious things that could happen if things are too loose.”

Caution about big projects

Parley commented that infrastructure has nothing to do with zoning and that the history of planning major projects is a mixed bag. He called Mayor Bloomberg’s West Side Stadium a “big mistake” and suggested that “large-scale plans have to be entered into carefully because the chance of getting them wrong is great.”

No one mentioned Atlantic Yards, but surely similar comments could be made.

Karnovsky, maintaining the party line, noted that most development in New York City was as-of--right, but community engagement is built into the ULURP process, which he suggested “has been invigorated” by the increased amount of information available.

That’s hard to deny, but the lingering, unaswered question is whether ULURP needs simply to be re-invigorated or in some ways rebalanced.


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