NYC - Municipal Governance vs. Organic Growth
New York’s zoning code was the first in the country, meant to promote a healthier city, which was then filling with filthy tenements and office towers. Since it was approved in 1916, the ever-evolving, byzantine code has changed many times to suit the needs of a swollen metropolis. Just in March, the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio won approval for a vast citywide plan that would encourage sleeker, more affordable developments.
Yet many of New York’s buildings remain stuck in the past.
Whole swaths of the city defy current zoning rules. In Manhattan alone, roughly two out of every five buildings are taller, bulkier, bigger or more crowded than current zoning allows, according to data compiled by Stephen Smith and Sandip Trivedi. They run Quantierra, a real estate firm that uses data to look for investment opportunities.
Mr. Smith and Mr. Trivedi evaluated public records on more than 43,000 buildings and discovered that about 17,000 of them, or 40 percent, do not conform to at least one part of the current zoning code. The reasons are varied. Some of the buildings have too much residential area, too much commercial space, too many dwelling units or too few parking spaces; some are simply too tall. These are buildings that could not be built today.
It is important to note that these estimates rely on public records that can be imperfect. Still, while the data may at times be imprecise, it allows for an insightful view of zoning in New York.
Many buildings in distinctive Manhattan neighborhoods like Chinatown, the Upper East Side and Washington Heights could not be erected now: Properties in those areas tend to cover too much of their lots (Washington Heights), have too much commercial space (Chinatown) or rise too high (the Upper East Side). Areas like Chelsea, Midtown and East Harlem, on the other hand, would look much as they do already.
“Look at the beautiful New York City neighborhoods we could never build again,” Mr. Smith said. “It’s ridiculous that we have these hundred-year-old buildings that everyone loves, and none of them ‘should’ be the way they are.”
As the zoning code enters its second century, it is worth considering the ways it has shaped the city; whether and where it is still working; and how it might be altered so the city can continue to grow without obliterating everything New Yorkers love about it.