Jason M. Barr (@JasonBarrRU) November 1, 2021
If you ask someone familiar with New York City real estate about the birth of modern zoning, they’ll point to 1961, the year the city implemented the floor area ratio (FAR) as the primary method to control building density. Sixty years later, the FAR is still going strong and, arguably, is the most popular planning tool globally.
The FAR rules give the maximum allowable building area relative to the size of the lot. FARs are frequently set to less than one in suburban districts, forcing landowners to build single-family homes. In central areas, the base residential FAR can be as high as 10 or 12, allowing for high-rises. Central Paris, for example, is a FAR 3 town. By capping the FAR, cities implicitly dictate how many people can live or work in each neighborhood.
The Great Depression
Indeed, the FAR was created in New York. However, its conception emerged two and half decades before 1961, during the Great Depression. It circulated within Mayor Fiorello La Guardia’s administration, and, in 1940, the FAR was incorporated into revisions of the 1916 zoning codes to limit density in leafy, residential neighborhoods.
During the 1940s, the idea of capping FARs percolated in planning circles, spreading outward from New York like ripples in a pond. Planners had become convinced that the first generation of zoning codes, which radiated out of New York in 1916, was inadequate and unable to check the evils of urban density. The FAR had a certain simplicity and gave planners a degree of control that they could not get from other regulations. By the late 1940s, it was known FAR and wide. The irony is that New York was two decades late to its own party.
How did the FAR spread across the country? And why did New York dither as the world began to embrace it? To answer these questions, we must go back to 1935, while the Great Depression held the nation in its grip.
Robert D. Kohn and the Birth of the FAR
The story begins with the Regional Planning Association of American (RPAA). During its heyday in the 1920s, it was an informal group of architects, planners, and writers, troubled by the ills of urban life. It aimed to make cities more healthful by promoting deconcentration and decentralization. RPAA members were inspired by their British counterparts, mostly notably Ebenezer Howard, Raymond Unwin, and Thomas Adams, who spearheaded the Garden City movement in the U.K.
In 1935, architect, reformer, and RPAA member Robert D. Kohn (1870-1953) led a housing committee at the City Club of New York, an organization devoted to promoting enlightened local policies. Kohn’s committee was established to weigh in on zoning reform. And it is Robert Kohn, more than any other individual, who was responsible for creating the floor area ratio. Kohn’s committee drafted a memo promoting the FAR to control housing density—the first time this idea appeared in print. The document also asked City Club President, Richard S. Childs, to push Mayor La Guardia to take up the mantle of zoning reform.
Kohn was assisted by architect, and City Club and RPAA member, Frederick L. Ackerman (1878–1950), who, in 1934, became the first Technical Director of New York City Housing (NYCHA). From there, he issued reports (screeds, really) on the evils of the free market and the inadequacy of the current zoning regulations. In a 1934 NYCHA report, co-written by William F. R. Ballard, he estimated that if the city was fully built out under the 1916 codes, it would have a resident population of 77 million and a daytime working population of 350 million.
No matter that these numbers were never realistically obtainable (New York’s population in 1930 was 6.9 million), they were cited in report and after report to motivate people to take zoning reform more seriously.
The Joint Committee
Child’s letter to La Guardia produced results. A new joint committee was formed with members of the Mayor’s Committee on City Planning and the City Club, which continued to recommend the implementation of FAR controls. This report was followed by yet another in 1938, entitled “Zoning for the City of New York,” by the Mayor’s Committee on City Planning with funds from the Works Progress Administration (WPA).
The FAR was able to make headway during the Depression because President Roosevelt’s administration was funding research that allowed planners the chance to study and promote what they had been thinking about for some time. As this report indicates,
This investigation logically carried the work [of the joint committee] one step further, resulting in drafting the skeleton framework for a new zoning resolution. This framework carried out the general thinking of the committee, and introduced some modifications and refinements of detail…..It is now generally accepted opinion that the time has come for New York City to overhaul its zoning structure and bring it up to date.
The report was written by Theodore T. McCrosky (1902-1968), who was one of the pivotal spreaders of FAR. It might not be too much of a stretch to say that he was the Johnny Appleseed of modern zoning. Given his key role, why has he all been forgotten in planning history? (He does not even have a Wikipedia page, for example, though the New York Times did publish his obituary). We’ll come back to this below.
McCrosky was born in Tecumseh, Nebraska, and graduated with a civil engineering degree from Yale University in 1923. After graduate work at Louvain University, he taught at Yale and worked in traffic engineering and city planning. In 1928, he was hired by the Regional Plan of New York and its Environs as an assistant to the general director of plans and surveys, Thomas Adams—one of the world’s foremost Garden City planners. As described in an earlier post, Adams and Robert Whitten promoted FAR-like planning in their writings, especially in the widely influential Regional Plan. Adams and Whitten were the godfathers of the FAR (godFARthers?).
In 1929, McCrosky traveled to Nanjing to advise Kuomintang officials on a master plan for what was to be the new capital of China. When he returned stateside, he became planning director for the City of Yonkers.
Zoning for the City of New York
By 1938, McCrosky was back in New York, where he was hired by the Mayor’s Committee on City Planning to write the report. It would set the blueprint for modern zoning, not only by introducing the FAR for comprehensive building bulk limits but also by introducing the kinds of zoning maps that we have today.
In 1916, the enacted zoning codes were specified in three separate maps—one for height setbacks, another for open space requirements, and a third for use (residential, commercial, or unrestricted). McCrosky’s report combined them into the now-standard method of placing all three within each zone (in addition to FAR requirements, sunlight provisions, and all sorts of other regulations).
For example, the R1 district was for “single-family detached dwellings and its accessory buildings.” The maximum FAR was to be set at 0.65. The R2 district was for similar uses as R1 but with a maximum allowable FAR at 0.8. All told, the report offered nine residential zones, three business districts, and an industrial zone. In hindsight, it was quite conservative. Today, in New York, there are ten main residential districts, eight commercial districts, and three for manufacturing. And each category has one or more subcategories. By my count, there are about 170 different zoning areas.
The Civil Servant
Following his stint with the Mayor’s Committee, McCrosky became the first director of the Master Planning division in the newly formed City Planning Commission (see below). By 1938, McCrosky was a rising star. In 1940, the New York Times reported that
Theodore T. McCrosky of 32 Washington Square West was rated first in competitive examinations for the posts of city planning director at $6,000 and associate city planner at $5,000, according to an announcement yesterday by the Municipal Civil Service Commission….Following Mr. McCrosky, whose rating was 92.90 per cent, the list for associate city planner carries F. Dodd McHugh as second, with 85.93….Mr. McHugh also placed second in the test for city planning director.
However, just as he was basking in his magna cum lauds, McCrosky packed up his bags and headed to the Windy City to take over as the executive director of the Chicago Plan Commission. We will return to McCrosky (and McHugh) later.
Rexford Tugwell and the City Planning Commission
In 1933, Congressman Fiorello La Guardia (1882-1947) was elected as the 99th mayor of the City of New York. He ran on a fusion ticket of Republicans and good government parties after the fall of mayor Jimmy Walker (1881-1946). Walker, a member of the notorious Democratic Club, Tammy Hall, was popular while Gotham was booming in the Roaring Twenties, but then a corruption scandal forced him from office. La Guardia was determined to reform New York’s government to root out corruption and provide an expansive set of services and programs to relieve suffering from the Great Depression.
In this vein, La Guardia spearheaded the creation of a new city charter that would centralize decision-making in his office. Historically, power was decentralized through the city’s Board of Estimate, comprised of the five borough presidents, the mayor, the comptroller, and the Board of Alderman president.
Birth of the CPC
The new charter, adopted in November 1936, left the basic governmental organization intact but provided changes to reduce corruption, create new offices and divisions, and establish a civil service. The charter contained a provision for establishing a City Planning Commission (CPC), which had responsibility for zoning, producing a master plan, and preparing capital expenditures and budgets. To give teeth to the CPC, the charter indicated that CPC decisions were considered final unless a three-fourths majority of the Board of Estimate overturned them.
The Department of City Planning (DCP) was also formed to provide research and do the heavy lifting of the Commission. It was headed by the chairman of the City Planning Commission and staffed with engineers, architects, and experts. Both the Commission and the Department began functioning in 1938.
The Master Planner
La Guardia eventually picked the controversial figure of Rexford G. Tugwell (1891-1979) as the first chairman of the CPC. Tugwell studied at the University of Pennsylvania, where he received his Ph.D. in economics. He taught at Columbia University from 1920 to 1932, and wrote widely on the need for economic planning. As historian Mark Gelfand writes,
No political figure of the 1930s was more closely identified with planning than Rexford Tugwell. Although allegations by his conservative opponents that Tugwell was a communist were unfair, defenders of the traditional American way of life were correct in concluding that the former Columbia University professor was not one of their own. Tugwell shared little of the American public’s faith in the market place as the impartial maker of decisions, either economic or political. The market place had been outmoded by the new machine age; society could no longer be run efficiently or justly on the principles of individualism and competition. Both businessmen and politicians, he insisted, thrived on uncertainty, whereas liberty, equality, and security in the modern world depended on exactitude and control. “Planning,” Tugwell told the American Economic Association early in the decade, “is a process of predicting and making it come true.”
In 1932, Tugwell was selected by President Franklin D. Roosevelt for his New Deal “Brain Trust.” After a stint in the Department of Agriculture in 1935, he was given a chance to create and direct the Resettlement Administration (RA) to aid struggling farmers.
The Resettlement Administration
One important component of the RA was its suburban resettlement program, which sought to relocate poor farmers to newly built “greenbelt towns” outside city centers, where they could find employment in other sectors. Initially, Tugwell hoped to build 25 greenbelt communities, but only three were completed (Greenbelt, MD; Greenhills, OH; and Greendale, WI).
To aid with his plans, Tugwell turned to New York architect and RPAA member Clarence Stein. During the 1920s, Stein worked with Kohn and Ackerman to develop America’s first Garden Cities, Sunnyside, Queens, and Radburn, New Jersey. By the time Tugwell arrived in New York, he was steeped in the RPAA’s ideas to de-densify cities.
Tugwell’s New York
Tugwell’s role in New York planning history merits a longer discussion. And I will have more to say in a future post about his stint in the Big Apple, but suffice it say, it was short and marked by defeat. Tugwell arrived in New York in 1938 and left for Puerto Rico in 1941, where he became the island’s governor. He was basically chased out of town, with his tail between his legs, by New York master builder and power broker Robert Moses, who held a dim view of Tugwell’s masterplan. (I will also return to Moses’ role in New York’s planning and zoning history in a future post.)
Tugwell tried to tackle zoning reform in 1939. His signature policy was to ban large billboards and flashing signs from retail districts. The proposal also stated that current signs in violation would not be grandfathered and had to be removed. The business community, landlords, and advertisers didn’t like this plan and were vocal in their protest. They were joined by those who saw this small non-conforming use rule as a slippery slope to greater regulation. Ultimately their objection led to the proposal’s defeat.
Nonetheless, amended zoning codes passed in June 1940. It had tweaks to the extant 1916 regulations and included FAR caps in newly created suburban zones. These additions were meant as a toehold into more extensive reforms, but the real work was to follow the implementation of a master plan. In the statement to the 1940 Zoning Proposal, the CPC claimed,
After careful consideration, it appears that more fundamental revision may be indicated upon completion of the basic Master Plan studies upon which the Commission and the Department of City Planning are now engaged. As the same time there would appear to be no good reason for denying to the residents of this City the advantages to be gained through such zoning provisions as are enjoyed elsewhere, are desirable in the City, and not inconsistent with the structure of the present Resolution….
Finally, there is introduced an entirely new principle of bulk limitation, designed to keep the bulk of buildings in these districts within reasonable limits, at the same time affording a maximum of leeway for individuality of design and arrangement. This bulk limitation is expressed in terms of the permissible area of floor space in the building in proportion to the area of the plot. For example, the 1.6 ratio permitted in F area districts is such as to permit the usual six-story apartment building, but if the height were increased, it would be necessary to decrease the coverage proportionally….The regulation is framed in terms of floor area, rather than cubic contents of building, because the latter would put a premium on low ceilings.
The Master Plan
Released in the fall of 1940, the proposed master plan had the ambition of flipping one-third of New York City into green space by 1990. As Gelfand writes, this was too much for Robert Moses whose
disdain for “do-gooders” also extended to their espousal of planning. Years of bargaining and compromising with governors, mayors, legislators, bankers, lawyers, property owners, engineers, and countless other groups had taught Moses that society was composed of too many disparate interests for any comprehensive, long-range master plan to be conceived and executed. A free society could plan, but only for limited objectives within a short time frame. Any “long-haired, ivory-tower” approach to planning was either not feasible or based on undemocratic premises. A master of the broker type of political universe he had inherited and helped form, Moses had sworn holy war on those “fanatic[al] and irresponsible” exponents of economic and political experimentation “who were quite ready to blow up the entire laboratory in order to insure a fair test of their latest invention.”
February 13, 1942, the City Planning Commission formally voted to scrap the master plan.
Tugwell and Ludlow in Puerto Rico
After New York, Tugwell had a chance, as governor of Puerto Rico, to implement his ideas with a much freer hand. In 1942, he set up the Junta de Planificación, Urbanización y Zonificación de Puerto Rico—the Planning, Urbanization and Zoning Board—which hired William H. Ludlow as consultant.
Ludlow is one of those hidden people in planning history. All we have left today is the footprints of his writings. I can find no obituary at his death; he has no Wikipedia page; and apparently has no biographies. Rather, he seems to have been a studious and serious soldier for the planning and zoning cause and did little to attract attention to himself. But from the digital gossamer, we can trace out bits of his actions.
In 1954, the Hartford Courant printed an obituary of Ludlow’s father, William Orr Ludlow, a well-known New York City architect. It mentions that Ludlow was survived by his family, including his planner son, William H. The Rockland County Journal-News in 1935 announced a wedding between Miss Wilma Chitterling of West Orange, New Jersey, and William H. Ludlow of Madison, New Jersey, also a Princeton University alumni. As for the newlyweds, “Following a brief motor trip in New York State, Mr. and Mrs. Ludlow will reside in Washington, where Mr. Ludlow is engaged in planning and research for the Resettlement Administration,” headed by Tugwell. At the RA, he contributed to several reports, and also worked with Clarence Stein.
Ludlow in New York
After about seven years in DC, Ludlow moved back to New York. He was hired to write a report for the Citizen’s Housing Council (CHC) of New York. The organization promoted affordable and safe housing (and claimed Frederick Ackerman among its membership). Ludlow’s 1944 CHC report, “Population Densities for New York City: A Technical Study of Urban Population Densities in Relation to City Planning,” set about defining and measuring population and building density throughout New York. The floor area ratio plays a key role.
Ludlow’s introduction begins with the “Ackerman Fact” that the city could hold 77 million residents if fully built out. He then discusses the need for “adequate density controls,” followed by a discussion of the pros and cons of the floor area ratio. Pro: “Relatively easily computed for single buildings, projects or small areas….Allows for flexibility of design. Can be applied to non-residential space.” Cons: “Does not allow for differences in room and apartment sizes. If used for regulation, it may tend to result in minimum room sizes in new projects.” The report concludes that northern Manhattan and parts of the Bronx and Brooklyn should have residential FARs capped at 2.1, and the rest of the outer boroughs capped at 1.2.
The following year, Ludlow published two papers in the Journal of the American Institute of Planners, specifically mentioning his work on the FAR for density control. Here, we can see that the ideas first developed in New York in the 1930s were increasingly part of the planners’ toolkit. And as such, they begin to appear in academic journals read by the planning profession.
Ludlow in Puerto Rico
After Tugwell established the Junta, Ludlow was hired as a planning consultant to work on developing zoning codes. They were implemented in San Juan in 1946 and contained FAR provisions. San Juan was thus the first city within U.S. territory to implement the FAR outside of New York.
The Spread of the FAR Stateside
Besides Ludlow, other planners from New York spread the FAR “good news” to the rest of mainland U.S., primarily through their reports and journal publications. For example, a year after Ludlow’s article about New York, F. Dodd McHugh published his research on Gotham in the Journal of the American Institute of Planners, where, for example, he measures the relationship between population densities and floor area ratios.
Francis Dodd McHugh (1907-1978) studied architecture and planning at Cornell and Harvard Universities. As mentioned above, he worked for the Department of City Planning, New York City, and was City Planning Director from 1941 to 1946. After his public service, McHugh joined with McCrosky as planning consultants that were hired by many municipalities around to offer new zoning plans.
By the end of the 1940s, the FAR was common knowledge. A 1948 report by the American Public Health Association entitled “Planning the Neighborhood,” confirms that this to be true:
The measurement of building bulk in term of ‘floor area ratios’ has been found so useful as a density control that it being applied increasingly by planners both in the United States and Britain.
And by the 1950s, the FAR began its exponential spread into the zoning codes across America. Initial discussions showed up in Chicago in 1951, in San Francisco in 1952, and in Boston in 1953. By 1958, the FAR was so widely used across the country that no one seemed to remember its origins. In 1958, the American Society of Planning Officials admitted, “Just when the floor area ratio bulk control first appeared in a zoning ordinance is not certain.” (Answer: New York, 1940.)
Chicago’s example is interesting because, as America’s second city, it beat New York to the punch, though that fact seems to be lost in our understanding of the FAR’s history. Exactly how it got to Chicago is not wholly known. The evidence suggests that even though McCrosky was director of the Chicago Plan Commission in 1941-42, following his seminal 1938 report, he did not spread the FAR there.
Rather, by the 1950s, it was in the ether winds blowing across the heartland. It appears in a report for the Chicago Plan Commission in 1951. Like the New York reports that preceded it, contained a detailed study of residential densities across the Windy City. The report cites its definition of the FAR from the 1948 “Planning the Neighborhood” study.
Under the leadership of local freight shipping magnate turned planner Henry F. Chaddick, Chicago began the process of creating a new zoning resolution. In October 1955, the city embraced the FAR, and the new zoning resolution was implemented in 1957. From there, FAR caps spread throughout Illinois.
McCroksy as Johnny Appleseed?
Returning to McCrosky, after World War II, he became the executive director of the Greater Boston Development Committee. But then, starting in 1948, in his private consulting practice with F. Dodd McHugh, he spread the FAR across America.
In 1952, McCrosky and McHugh were hired by the Philadelphia City Planning Commission to provide blueprints for rezoning the city, which included FAR cap provisions. Like New York, Philly appears to have dithered for a decade until 1962, when the FAR was formally implemented. By the end of the 1950s, McCrosky could boast of his influence. In a court deposition, he revealed:
Well, among others, we prepared zoning ordinances for Yonkers, New York for Ossining village, for North Pelham, all of Westchester County; for Derby in Connecticut, for West Orange and Somerville and Manville, Jefferson Township and a good many other municipalities in New Jersey.
Why Did New York City Dither?
If New York invented the FAR, why did it take two decades to adopt it citywide? The short answer is strong opposition and divided leadership. The two-decade delay was not for lack of trying, but a new proposal was defeated each time. Eventually, a comprehensive rezoning was shepherded into law in 1960 by the widely-respected Planning Commissioner, James Felt (1903-1971).
Born in the Lowest East Side, Felt was a third-generation real estate man. After studying at the University of Pennsylvania, he returned to New York and established a firm, dealing in management, land assembly, and relocation of evicted tenants. His company, for example, amassed the land for Peter Cooper Village and Stuyvesant Town, two huge residential projects in Manhattan built by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company after World War II.
His New York Times obituary quoted Donald Elliot, the then chairman of the CPC, saying that Mr. Felt was “the father of modern zoning, as a result of his achievement in effecting the 1961 zoning resolution, the first change in the city’s zoning laws since 1907.”
Evidently, the Times was willing to take him at his word. But the two facts are not true. The city’s first zoning laws were enacted in 1916, not 1907, and, as discussed above, he was not the father of modern zoning (though the Times article helped perpetuate that myth). When Felt took over the reins of the CPC, the FAR and modern zoning were already decades old. His contribution was to effectuate what the city had struggled to accomplish for many years.
Zoning After Tugwell
After Tugwell left Gotham in 1940, Robert Moses was appointed a commissioner to the CPC. Moses proposed a citywide rezoning in 1944. His plan was based on reforming the 1916 zoning codes rather than the systematic use of the FAR. The key element was to reduce bulk by making setback and open area rules stricter.
Interestingly, Irving V. A. Huie, a fellow member of the Commission, offered a FAR-based proposal, but Moses and the other commissioners rejected it. Despite opposition from the real estate community, the Board of Estimate passed Moses’ plan. However, the courts declared it illegal on a technicality related to the Board of Estimate’s voting procedure. The law, as handed down by Moses, was rejected.
The Harrison, Ballard & Allen Report
Then in 1948, the CPC Chairman Robert F. Wagner Jr, hired Harrison, Ballard and Allen (HB&A) as consultants to create a blueprint for a new zoning resolution. This report is interesting in a few respects. First, it is still circulated widely among New York planners (and is posted on the DCP website), and this gives the (false) impression that it was the first time in New York history that the FAR was part of any government-sanctioned report.
Secondly, one of the report’s authors William Ballard, who became CPC chairman from 1963 to 1966, was a protégée and co-author of Frederick Ackerman, who was intimately involved with the early conception of the FAR (which was used in guiding NYCHA housing projects at least as early as 1940). As discussed in another post, Ackerman was an avowed technocrat and believed that the perfect society could be designed by the technically oriented master planner. Ballard, as such, was there as the creation.
But the HB&A report, which uses the FAR as the central density-controlling feature, makes no mention of the FAR’s 15-year history. Why this might be, at this point, is subject to guesswork. One theory is that when the report was released, the FAR was so universal that no need was felt to mention its origins. Planners across the country already took it for granted. A second theory is that the authors wanted it to seem like it was their contribution rather than those who came before them. Regardless, today, the conventional wisdom is to give credit to the HB&A report for introducing the idea, and the focus on it has helped to erase knowledge of the roles played by the founders, including Kohn, Ackerman, Tugwell, McCrosky, McHugh, and Ludlow.
Ironically, despite the perceptions as it being pivotal, the HB&A report ultimately failed to be enacted. The plan, released in April 1951, had both supporters and detractors. One key opponent was…wait for it…Robert Moses. Between the opposition from within and without, the plan eventually died. Or as Stanislaw J. Makielski put it in his 1966 Ph.D. dissertation on the politics of zoning reform, “The Commission had been defeated by a strongly organized resistance and its own unwillingness to do battle for the HB&A plan.”
The Vorhees, Walker, Smith & Smith Report
Finally, when James Felt took the helm at the CPC, he hired yet another consulting firm in 1956 to offer a new zoning plan. Released in 1959, it was in a similar spirit to the HB&A report in that it relied on the FAR to reduce the city’s density. After public feedback, Felt and the CPC were able to revise the proposal and rebut the naysayers to get sufficient buy-in. Moses, again, was opposed to it, but he eventually switched to a “yes” vote after pressure from Felt.
In December 1960, New York City formally adopted the floor area ratio as the main tool to limit building bulk, and the law was to go into effect in December 1961. It represented a major downzoning, with a maximum population of 12 million, compared to Felt’s estimate of 55 million under the 1916 codes as they were written in 1956.
Triumph of the FAR
While the FAR’s originators, including Robert Kohn and Frederick Ackerman, were off the scene by 1960, they were the true fathers modern zoning. They were carried by the spirit of the age, which saw cities as messy, unhealthy, and exploitative. They came to believe in a technocratic ethic: that they could develop formulas to fine-tune the city like a sophisticated clock. Once they understood the key mathematical rules, they could adjust the city to their preferences and create order by design. These formulas, including the floor area ratio, were not value free.
Planners could not as easily control people or household sizes, but they could control building sizes and densities. As a result, they created vast swaths of urban land with very low maximum floor area ratios. These FAR caps were meant to check the “greediness” of developers who might have otherwise catered to the demand for apartment living. The FAR founders felt that the city should look more like the ideal Garden City as laid out by Ebenezer Howard and his “apostles.”
By the 1960s, with the publication of Jane Jacob’s book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and the failures of public housing, slum clearance, and urban renewal, the belief in better living through technocracy and planning began to get pushback. Nonetheless, cities across the country could not shake their reliance on the FAR. Once implemented, it became an “absorbing state” because it was the one planning policy left from the technocratic heyday that allowed planners some modicum of control (and had great support from Nimbyists seeking to stop changes in their neighborhoods). For good or for bad, the FAR remains triumphant.
In next post, we take up how the FAR left America and spread to the rest of the world.
Continue reading Part I of this blog series on the birth of modern zoning during the 1920s here and Part II on the Great Depression here.