Art

How Zoning Laws Shaped New York City Over the Last Century

The Museum of the City of New York explores how a century of zoning code in New York City has influenced the built environment of today.

Mastering the Metropolis: New York and Zoning, 1916-2016
Rob Stephenson, “1850 Second Avenue, Manhattan” (2016) (courtesy the photographer and Museum of the City of New York)

New York City is pocked with what are known as privately owned public spaces (POPS), created following a 1961 zoning resolution. In order to build higher, or with other concessions, developers can incorporate publicly accessible places outside or within their structures. This led to Zuccotti Park, the stage for Occupy Wall Street in 2011, which was designed to add more stories to One Liberty Plaza. Now, as Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue is the President-elect’s secured citadel, it’s worth remembering that to construct the glassy behemoth taller by 20 floors, Trump included a pedestrian space and two upper terraces for the public. As Nick Turse recently reported in The Nation, you can expect to be joined by wary members of the Secret Service if you make use of those terraces today.

Mastering the Metropolis: New York and Zoning, 1916-2016
Rob Stephenson, “432 Park Avenue, Manhattan” (2016) (courtesy the photographer and Museum of the City of New York)

In this way, although it’s not particularly seductive as far as themes go, Mastering the Metropolis New York and Zoning, 1916–2016 at the Museum of the City of New York is an incredibly relevant exhibition. From affordable housing to the “supertall” skyscrapers like 432 Park Avenue that cast long shadows by using multiple lots to increase their Floor Area Ratio (FAR) holdings, Mastering the Metropolis engages visitors with zoning by focusing on its present impacts. Organized by Andrea Renner and Eric Goldwyn in one large gallery of the Manhattan museum, it includes over 150 objects, photographs of the city by Rob Stephenson, and extensive text and graphics to demonstrate how every New Yorker is effected by the rules of zoning.

When New York City established its Zoning Resolution of 1916, it was the first such comprehensive zoning code in the country, albeit inspired by skyscraper setbacks in Chicago and industrial land use in Los Angeles. A graphic on one wall of Mastering the Metropolis shows how the initial 12 pages of the code ballooned to 1,300 pages in 2016, now addressing extremely specific zoning like the artistic character of Broadway with the 1967 Special Theater District, or the 1975 Special Natural Area Districts attentive to protecting the ecological heritage of the city.

Installation view of Mastering the Metropolis New York and Zoning, 1916-2016 at the Museum of the City of New York (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of Mastering the Metropolis New York and Zoning, 1916–2016 at the Museum of the City of New York (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of Mastering the Metropolis New York and Zoning, 1916-2016 at the Museum of the City of New York (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Graphic of zoning code pages from 1916 to 2016 (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

In 1916 the city was grappling with how to address development in the midst of major growth, mainly in a centralized overcrowded area, as about a sixth of New York’s population lived below 14th Street, much of it in the Lower East Side. The resulting 19th-century slums were dramatically visualized in photography by Jacob Riis. Many of the reformers’ concerns remain consistent today, whether it’s the height of buildings or the location of industrial zones, all aimed at encouraging a city that’s healthy and prosperous for its inhabitants.

Herbert Swan of the 1916 zoning commission commented: “The whole purpose of zoning is to encourage the right building in the right place.” And as in 1916, the codes of 2016 are all about maintaining what’s seen as the ideal city, although that is, as it’s always been, subjective. An interesting narrative in Mastering the Metropolis concentrates on the artist lofts of Soho in the 1970s. These started as illegal residences in industrial spaces; while this use for habitation would have been legal under the 1916 zoning code, the 1961 alterations banned it. Finally, in 1976, the City Planning Commission and Board of Estimate voted in favor of certified artists using the manufacturing buildings as residential lofts. For better or worse, depending on your idea of what New York should be, Soho and Tribeca transformed from blaring industrial neighborhoods crammed with trucks, to derelict districts left stranded by their zoning, to bustling high-end commercial quarters.

Around that same time, sociologist William H. Whyte was studying the interactions with public spaces, and his research prompted another amendment in 1975 that set new standards for the “bonus plazas” that would make them more useable by the public, rather than just sprawls of concrete with lonely benches. We may not be conscious of zoning in our everyday lives, but New York City is very much a direct result of decisions made decades ago, influencing where we live, work, and take our pauses in the slices of sunlight breaking through the increasingly dense Manhattan skyline.

Berenice Abbott, "Seventh Avenue, looking north from 35th Street" (December 5, 1935), gelatin silver print (courtesy Museum of the City of New York, Museum Purchase with funds from the Mrs. Elon Hooker Acquisition Fund)
Berenice Abbott, “Seventh Avenue, looking north from 35th Street” (December 5, 1935), gelatin silver print (courtesy Museum of the City of New York, Museum Purchase with funds from the Mrs. Elon Hooker Acquisition Fund)
Mastering the Metropolis: New York and Zoning, 1916-2016
Rob Stephenson, “Arcade at 550 Madison Avenue, Manhattan” (2016) (courtesy the photographer and Museum of the City of New York)
Mastering the Metropolis: New York and Zoning, 1916-2016
Wurts Bros., “165 Broadway, The New Equitable Building” (1910), modern print (courtesy Museum of the City of New York, Wurts Bros. Collection)
Partnership for New York City Industrial Map, showing manufacturing industries (1922) (courtesy Museum of the City of New York, Gift of McKim, Mead & White)
Partnership for New York City Industrial Map, showing manufacturing industries (1922) (courtesy Museum of the City of New York, Gift of McKim, Mead & White)
Mastering the Metropolis: New York and Zoning, 1916-2016
Commission on building districts & restrictions map accompanying tentative report of March 10, 1916, showing tentative height districts in the Borough of Manhattan (1916) (courtesy the Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations)
Mastering the Metropolis: New York and Zoning, 1916-2016
Rob Stephenson, “Midtown Manhattan setbacks” (2016) (courtesy the photographer and Museum of the City of New York)
Installation view of Mastering the Metropolis New York and Zoning, 1916-2016 at the Museum of the City of New York (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of Mastering the Metropolis New York and Zoning, 1916–2016 at the Museum of the City of New York (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of Mastering the Metropolis New York and Zoning, 1916-2016 at the Museum of the City of New York (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Models depicting the FAR increase for 432 Park Avenue, where nine lots were merged into a single lot measuring 42,000 square feet (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of Mastering the Metropolis New York and Zoning, 1916-2016 at the Museum of the City of New York (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of Mastering the Metropolis New York and Zoning, 1916–2016 at the Museum of the City of New York (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Mastering the Metropolis New York and Zoning, 1916–2016 continues through April 23, 2017, at the Museum of the City of New York (1220 Fifth Avenue, East Harlem, Manhattan). 

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