How Zoning Shapes Our Neighborhoods

The classic downtown New York skyline in the pre-War years was shaped by the 1916 zoning resolution.

One hundred one years ago today, on July 25, 1916, New York City adopted the very first zoning rules anywhere in the country. This system for regulating the size, height, use, and other related characteristics of new development revolutionized the way cities looked and developed, and changed forever how we see property rights and our responsibilities and obligations to our neighbors and the broader community.

In short, before July 25, 1916, you could (more or less) build whatever you want, of whatever size and with whatever use you liked, as long as it remained within the bounds of your property (and you could even extend over your property line under many circumstances).

After July 25, 1916, there were for the first time limits.

The Equitable Building (1915) rose up almost unrelieved for 40 stories on Broadway in the Financial District, and became the poster-child for the need for zoning restrictions. The NYC Dept. of City Planning, which governs our zoning regulations, is now located in the building.

But the story does not end there. Our zoning system has been constantly updated since then, for the most part getting more elaborate, and more complicated.

But to put it in the simplest of terms, there have been three major stages of zoning in New York City: the original 1916 zoning, which created the “wedding cake” or “ziggurat” style of buildings; the 1961 zoning resolution, which created the “tower-in-a-park” or “tower-on-a-pedestal” model for new development; and the increasingly common modifications to our zoning text which began in the 1980s through “contextual zoning” or “quality housing” provisions, which encourage or require “contextual” development.

So on the occasion of this big anniversary of our zoning regulations, we thought we’d take a look at these three crucial stages of our zoning, by looking at some classic examples in our neighborhoods.

The 1916 Zoning Resolution

Hugh Ferriss’ renderings from the early 1920s show the outlines of what the 1916 zoning resolution would allow to be built (upper l.) and how it evolved into the setback forms which actually were built (lower r.).

The original 1916 zoning resolution, which was passed in part in response to buildings like the Equitable Building which rose almost entirely straight up from the property line for forty stories darkening the narrow streets of Lower Manhattan, was intended to guarantee that at least some light and air would always reach the ground around new developments.  This was done by creating certain ratios, depending upon the location, of how much a building had to set back for every foot that it rose. In essence the zoning created a sloped line in the sky extending up and inward from the edges of a site within which new buildings had to fit, typically above a solid base upon which the building could sit without setbacks.

120 Wall Street (1930) is considered by many the classic example of the “wedding cake” style building the 1916 zoning created.

Theoretically this could have created buildings with sloped slides extending upwards to sharp, pointed tops. Because this would not be the most practical use of space, what it in reality created was buildings with staggered setbacks, sometimes referred to as “wedding cakes” or “ziggurats,” which included some of the most recognizable and beloved emblems of the pre-war New York City skyline.

Some classic examples of 1916 zoning buildings in Greenwich Village (clockwise from upper left): 45 Christopher Street; 302 West 12th Street; 299 West 12th Street; 59 West 12th Street.

In neighborhoods like Greenwich Village and the East Village, it most frequently manifested in large pre-war or post-war apartments buildings (and occasionally office buildings), with large blocky bases with setback stories above a certain height. Like the skyline-defining downtown and midtown skyscrapers of this era, many of these buildings in the Village and East Village are considered classics of the era.

This 1930 office building at 14th Street and 8th Avenue is one of the boldest manifestations of the impact of the 1916 zoning resolution in our area.

The 1961 Zoning Resolution

The 1958 Seagram Building at Park Avenue and 53rd Street. Planners were enamored of its elegant tower-on-a-plaza form, but what worked well as a single contrasting form in the Midtown streetscape wreaked havoc with neighborhoods when the 1961 zoning resolution required it to be repeated ad infinitum.

After the construction of the much-celebrated Seagram Building in 1958, and reflecting the post-War urban planning ideal of creating towers surrounded by large amounts of open space, New York City passed the 1961 zoning resolution which incentivized building taller buildings set within plazas, parks, or other open spaces. This manifested most dramatically in large “super-block” developments 0n large, often previously multi-block spaces which had multiple freestanding towers surrounded by park space around them, as seen in the Washington Square Village or Silver Towers/University Village developments south of Washington Square, or Village View Houses on 1st Avenue or various NYCHA housing developments on Avenue D or C in the East Village.

Superblock developments in the Village and East Village reflecting the “tower in a park” ideal concretized in the 1961 zoning resolution (clockwise from upper left): Washington Square Village; Silver Towers/University Village; Jacob Riis Houses on Avenue D; and Village View Houses on 1st Avenue.

This “tower-in-a-park” zoning and planning was later modified to include “tower-on-a-podium” developments which became more common in the late 1960s and 1970s, which placed these towers on one-story commercial bases rather than solely on top of open spaces. The most dramatic examples of this are the 31-story Georgetown Plaza (built in 1967) at 60 East 8th Street (Broadway/Mercer Street) and the 35-story Hilary Gardens directly to the south at 300 Mercer Street (completed in 1974), with their 1-story commercial podiums facing Broadway, towers set behind them, and plazas behind that on Mercer and 8th Street and Washington Place.

Georgetown Plaza (r.) and Hilary Gardens behind it; towers on a podium.

The allowance for the commercial podiums was meant to alleviate the harm done by the open spaces around the towers which frequently destroyed lively commercial districts by inserting empty plazas in their midst.  Nevertheless, the tower in a park or tower on a plaza formula continued to be built well into the 2000s, as illustrated by the New School’s Loeb Hall dorm at 135 East 12th Street and NYU’s Founders Hall dorm at 120 East 12th Street (in response to these very out-of-context towers, GVSHP helped get contextual zoning for this area).

The New School’s Loeb Hall (l.) and NYU’s Founders Hall.

Contextual Zoning and Quality Housing, mid-1980s on

To try to address the often disruptive effect that developments resulting from the 1961 zoning resolution could have, including tall structures which towered over their surroundings and new buildings pushed back from the otherwise uniform streetwall by starting behind plazas and open spaces, in the mid-1980s the City began to implement “contextual zoning” districts, first in a few discrete locations like TriBeCa and the Upper West Side, and eventually in rezoned areas throughout the city, and offered optional “Quality Housing” provisions. What both did was create much more tightly-controlled parameters for the size and height of new developments. Whereas unlike under the 1961 zoning which offered no absolute height limits for development and had no requirements for new developments matching the streetwall or other characteristics of surrounding developments, contextual zoning and quality housing put specific limits on the height of new developments, required setbacks at certain levels, and either required new buildings to come out to the streetline or set back slightly depending upon the predominant built form to help ensure they fit in with their surroundings.

“The Nathaniel” at 3rd Avenue and 12th Street is directly adjacent to the New School’s Loeb Hall and NYU’s Founder’s Hall. But its form, shaped by a 2010 contextual rezoning GVSHP fought for, is worlds apart.

GVSHP has helped secure contextual zoning in almost all of the East Village and in a significant chunk of the Far West Village. Quality housing provisions, which are generally voluntary, exist throughout our neighborhoods. They have generally resulted in buildings which fit the form and shape of their surroundings, unlike their 1960s and 70s counterparts.

Contextual developments on Sixth Avenue in Greenwich Village on either side of Washington Place.

What will the next hundred or so years of zoning bring us?  Only time will tell.

For a much more comprehensive history and analysis of the 1916 zoning resolution, see this piece by Skyscraper Museum Executive Director Carol Willis.

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Andrew Berman

Andrew Berman has been the Executive Director of GVSHP since 2002.