Zoning: A Blunted Instrument

Editorial News

Courtesy Zoning the City

On November 15 an impressive group of academic minds, official movers, urban activists, and out-of-town wonks took to the stage and swarmed into the seats of the mid-century swank McGraw-Hill auditorium. Hosted by the director of the department of city planning, Amanda Burden, with adroit monitoring by Harvard professor of urban planning (a.k.a. Mr. POPS), Jerold Kayden, speakers included NYU professor Hilary Ballon, Skyscraper Museum director Carol Willis, urban planner Alex Garvin, Bloomberg CEO Daniel Doctoroff, Community Solutions president Rosanne Haggerty, developer gurus Vishaan Chakrabarti and Jonathan Rose, and architects Robert A.M. Stern and Thom Mayne, plus chief city planners from London, Boston and San Francisco. The audience was just as loaded.

The subject was zoning. It is the 50th anniversary of the 1961 Zoning Resolution. Or as Harriet Tregoning, director of planning in D.C., so wryly put it: “It’s a good idea to take a look at zoning every 50 years or so.” The event was billed as “Zoning the City: Addressing New York City’s 21st Century Challenges.”

Would that it had been that direct. As it turns out, these zoning whizzes are as in the dark about zoning as you or I; and forget its legibility to the average citizen (although city planning is trying to fix that with its new interactive ZoLa app). There was much talk of zoning as a tool (San Francisco planner John Rahaim called it a “blunt instrument”), but whether it supported or controlled growth, enhanced or sold-out the public realm, helped or created havoc with transferable air rights and FAR was uncertain. If a tool, it sounded like it must be an astrolabe, so arcane that no one knows how to use it. The city’s zoning regulations, said Garvin, are “something no ordinary human being can understand.”

But this was no ordinary group of human beings; these were folks fluent in ULURP. And so it was disappointing that while they groped substantively with familiar challenges, they failed to be creative about opportunities (with the exception of Chakrabarti who was so out there he envisioned a Manhattan twin out of landfill—a zoning blank slate—in the harbor.) Overall, the conversation kept spinning its wheels on terms and definitions; I guess even high-performance cars can get stuck in a deep enough rut.

The audience, and I later learned even the speakers, wanted to hear more about new approaches and experiments, pilots and initiatives. Garvin made an interesting point about Lower Manhattan turning into a police state due to all the security (not a zoning problem. Should it be?) but settled back into marveling about the loveliness of Parisian boulevards. Charming place, but does anyone really want New York to lapse into some Old World museum city for nostalgia-swilling tourists? Keeping it competitive was the litany heard repeatedly by the pro-development speakers. That’s fine, too, but where are the ideas about how to do it in tandem with providing equity for the needy? Kairos Shen, the chief planner in Boston, talked about the concept of “curated uses” referring to his city’s recently established Innovation District on the South Boston waterfront, modeled on a similar success story in Barcelona, where developers are required to turn over 25 percent of space to incubator businesses. In Washington D.C., there’s the Green Area Ratio, a sustainability metric established in 2010 to set standards for landscape and site design pertaining to runoff, air quality, and urban heat island effects. Our managing editor Molly Heintz just returned from Beijing where she saw the booming zoning/development strategy called SOHO for Small Office, Home Office. Many of the architects we write about daily are designing these mixed-use buildings geared to a real-world live/work conundrum, including Steven Holl, Kengo Kuma, and Zaha Hadid, and I wish the conference had delved more into such efforts.

New York may have the High Line, urbanism’s triumph du jour, but it seems to be lagging behind in the kind of nitty-gritty innovations that make the real difference for the most people in the long run. As a tool, zoning has become too unwieldy, more like a loose cannon. The ideas are out there, it’s time to bring them home. But see for yourself, the conference was taped and can be seen at zoningthecity.com.

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