I Am As Old As the Zoning Resolution


Last week, the Municipal Art Society (MAS) held the first of what will likely be many 50th anniversary “celebrations” of the City’s thousand-plus page Zoning Resolution.

Alas, like President Obama and the Zoning Resolution, I too was born in 1961. I don’t have my long form birth certificate – but trust me – I am as aged as the City’s zoning.

At last week’s event there was a murmur of a call for a re-make of the Resolution. Indeed, this call for “reform” has been resonating since the beginning of the 50th anniversary year.

David Karnovsky – City Planning’s chief counsel – made a clear and concise argument in favor of keeping the Resolution generally intact. A complex city needs a complex set of rules to govern its land use, he said. The complicated and rich stew that is New York is reflected in the document that guides its growth. And, in any event, it isn’t the ’61 Resolution anyway: A plethora of amendments has kept the document timely and up-to-date and so altered that it no longer resembles the document of my infancy anyway. DK (David Karnovsky, that is) was sharp and witty and, I think, right. A “master plan” from Albany (one commentator suggested as much) would do little to shape the Zoning Resolution and would be enormously difficult to craft and enact.

The other panelists – Michael Parley (a zoning consultant) and Alan Greenberger, Philadelphia’s Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development – largely echoed this theme.

Michael sees the Zoning Resolution as a “blunt instrument” that doesn’t and shouldn’t mandate design. His presentation that night was an intelligent and sometimes hilarious trek through the past half-century. But, he concluded that today’s tools are about right – having evolved to the point where they appropriately provide for a mix of building forms, instead of mandating a particular typology.

Alan Greenberger was chosen because the City of Brotherly Love (which is smaller than Brooklyn – a point Parley emphasized) is presently in the throes of a comprehensive remake of its zoning. But, everyone – including the MAS President Vin Cippola, recognized that Philadelphia is so vastly different that it is almost impossible to compare to Gotham. Still, Philadelphia’s efforts are instructive as to the challenges when attempting to overhaul a major-City zoning regime.

Last week’s event was the first of many which are in the works – all celebrating, or marking anyway, the 50th year of our zoning. We at Zone invite your comments on this occasion. You have until December — when the 51st year begins!Meanwhile, Zone will try to cover all of the anniversary events.