Time to Rethink Manhattan Zoning Laws

A rezoning map for new construction from ChelseaMost of us don't think too hard (or at all) about zoning laws in Manhattan, unless we’re developers. That’s why we often know nothing about the regulations that literally shape the face of the Manhattan. Zoning is an all-encompassing subject that touches every aspect of new development, and it has done so for over a century. So what are the zoning rules that regulate new condo construction Manhattan? Anyone? Well, here’s a starting point to understanding our current situation: for 50 years, the basic structure of New York’s zoning laws installed by then Mayor Robert Wagner has remained the same. Currently, numerous neighborhoods such as the East Village and East Harlem are overhauling the details their zoning laws in order to accommodate new condo construction in Manhattan, but even with these changes, the basic structure of zoning laws remains untouched. A panel of planning experts met last week to discuss whether or not that structure can be improved, and the consenus was that our zoning laws are badly in need of change.

The suggestions put forth by the planning experts from around the country addressed the overarching principles of NYC zoning, many of which seem to be archaic. Since it’s safe to assume that most of us don’t understand that structure, here are the basic tenets: the current system is site-specific (meaning it varies from neighborhood to neighborhood), relies upon community boards, restricts how big buildings can be, how businesses and residents are situated in those buildings, and how many people can live in them. There are a few major problems with this method, namely, there is no method for reconciling competing priorities between different communities, community boards are just advisory and lack any substantial power, and there is no city-wide standard on which to critique or analyze individual projects. Plus, restrictions on the form of the buildings themselves make the approval process more complicated than it needs to be. PlaNYC, Mayor Bloomberg’s current zoning plan, sticks to this format without addressing these underlying structural problems that hinder new condos from being built.

The panel of experts agreed on certain points, expecially that zoning is fundamentally about public interface, or how buildings meet and shape the public realm, not the forms or uses of the buildings themselves. They suggested scrapping current regulations forbidding residential and business units on the same floor, and the restrictions that only a certain amount of unrelated people can live in the same unit. Furthermore, in stark contrast to the current Department of City Planning concerns about “contextual zoning,” they argued that Manhattan developers should be free to construct luxury condominiums that don’t match the buildings around them, citing the Empire State Building as a project that wasn’t contextual but greatly enhanced the neighborhood. New projects like 10 West End Ave and Time Warner's high-rises on Columbus Circle are also examples of buildings that have enhanced their neighborhoods. Furthermore, they suggested consolidating separate environmental and safety codes into one, thus eliminating the redundancies that slow down new construction.

While the experts have substantial points, NYC doesn’t seem to be interested in altering the status quo. For better or worse, they will probably continue to rewrite zoning regulations one neighborhood at a time. Whether or not this system will prove to be adequate for new condo construction in Manhattan is yet to be seen, but if nothing else the suggestions proposed by the experts would greatly streamline a difficult process.