The Next 50

December 8, 2011ZONE

Next Thursday, the New York City Zoning Resolution turns 50 years old. As zoning nerds the world over take a minute to acknowledge this milestone, we must not forget to turn our attention to the next 50 years and start considering specific actions that will encourage the progress of this great city and preserve its competitive advantage. It is time to think big…literally.

While planning (and zoning, for that matter) doesn’t happen in a vacuum, as we look at the next 50 years, architects of the City’s planning and zoning policies should take three words into consideration – no, not location location location. Urban planning technocrats, elected officials, neighborhood groups, and all other stakeholders should be guided by the following three words:




Any and every decision should be viewed through the prism of these three concepts. Every action should be forced to explain how it furthers one (if not more) of these over-arching goals. As you’ll see, these three goals are often complementary; meeting one goal provides dividends for the others.

To be fair, the City’s Department of City Planning has taken some steps in recent years that fall under these three goals.

When it comes to density, there have been many upzonings, but also many “contextual downzonings”. NYU’s Furman Center addressed this issue in this 2010 report.

When it comes to sustainability,  the Bloomberg Administration as a whole has taken several laudable steps (PlaNYC 2030, the Greener, Greater Buildings Pan, Green Codes Task Force). The Department if City Planning has taken some vital, yet incremental steps – including a series of new regulations which were just announced, intended to encourage more efficient buildings (see here).

Regarding affordability, the Inclusionary Housing Program was a major step forward. With a weak economy, however, it remains to be seen if the projected unit targets will be met.

These efforts undertaken by the Department of City Planning are to be commended, but the work is only beginning. As we turn our attention to the next 50 years, we must build on these stepping stones and take some major leaps forward. If we are to retain our position as the capital of the world; if we are to remain competitive, urban planners must take the lead.

Below are some suggestions for possible actions the Department of City Planning can and should take in the coming years that will push the City closer towards meeting these three, vital over-arching goals.

When people think of New York City, they picture a dense, urban landscape. This is who we are. This is what makes us New York. This is what makes us New Yorkers. We should not run away from this. We should embrace it.

At last month’s Zoning the City Conference, Vishaan Chakrabarti made a suggestion that I had never before heard. He suggested that we upzone midtown Manhattan. This is a radical idea and I love it. Midtown is already the densest part of NYC. But Chakrabarti suggested increasing that density. I think that upzoning most of Manhattan and increasing the permitted densities along the transportation spines throughout the outer Boroughs would be a welcome step forward.

The City can handle the additional population. As often discussed by Mitch Korbey (another author of this blog), while NYC is at its population peak, Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx are not at their borough population peaks. Manhattan peaked in 1910 with more than 2.3M people (800,000 more than today); Brooklyn peaked in the 1950’s with 2.7M people (200,000 more than today); and the Bronx peaked in 1970 with nearly 1.5M people (100,000 more than today).

Increased density will further define NYC as unique in this world. It will also aid in meeting the other two goals – sustainability and affordability.

When it comes to NYC’s buildings, we must either require more sustainable construction and retrofits or we must heavily incentivize it. NYC has done some of this, when it comes to existing buildings, but much more should be done. If we are not going to mandate very strict efficiency guidelines for new buildings (and I would not be opposed to considering this option), then we must create new ways to encourage our developers to build utilizing the newest, most efficient technologies.

To do this, the City should create a new floor area bonus program – similar to the Inclusionary Housing Program – where a developer can gain additional floor area for the development of a green building. The City has something extremely valuable to developers – the ability to grant development rights. As these rights do not come at a high cost to the City, this is a powerful tool that should be put to better use. The incentive should be very desirable, such that developers would be foolish to turn it down

When it comes to existing buildings (correctly identified in PlaNYC 2030 as a major source of carbon), the City should also find a way to incentivize major retrofits. There is money to be made in making existing buildings efficient. Property owners, however, are not yet convinced of this. In order to get them there, a major incentive push should be made. Again, the City could offer additional floor area (many existing buildings are overbuilt and would be happy to be given the opportunity to expand) or possibly property tax abatements.

Additionally, developers who go through ULURP, the City’s public review process, should be incentivized with a much shorter public review – if their projects guarantee sustainable components.


The City’s Inclusionary Housing Program has been a great start, but now it’s time to take the next step. Why are only some areas of the City eligible to participate? First, the City should immediately include all portions of every borough within the Program. Secondly, the floor area bonuses should be much more robust. Today, the reality is that only certain developers participate in the program. And with the economy weak and not on the verge of improving, a deeper incentive should be offered.

A much greater bonus will encourage more developers to utilize the program, thereby creating more affordable units, as well as meeting the density goal as well.

Please note that these suggestions are not necessarily original nor the universe of ways to meet these goals. They are meant as a continuation of a discussion; one that will unfold over the coming years and decades. Zoning is merely one tool available for use by urban planners. Furthering these three goals must incorporate efforts from all City agencies, as well as the non-profit and private sectors. The time is now to determine in what direction the next half century will unfold. With these three goals as the prism through which all zoning decisions are made, we can be sure to keep NYC in its role of prominence while simultaneously doing right by its current and future citizens.