Jason M. Barr March 27, 2019
[Note this the first part of a three-part series on New York’s first comprehensive land use regulations, enacted in 1916. Part I focuses on the history and thinking of the city’s reformers. Part II reviews this thinking through the lens of modern economic analysis. Part III argues that the ideas and rules from 1916 helped to set the stage for today’s NIMBYism and housing affordability problems.]
A great many people suffer from gastric troubles. This is due in the first place to the fact that the people are compelled to eat a dry lunch, sandwiches, etc….It is also due to the congestion. It is hardly possible for a great many of the factory employees, especially on the higher floors to have the time to go down and eat their lunches in a neighboring restaurant and then have time to come back again to their work in the high buildings. They might have time if there were not such congestion. –Statement by Dr. George M. Price, Director of the Joint Board of Sanitary Control, to the NYC Commission on Building Districts and Restrictions, May 24, 1916
One of the most visible, and awe-inspiring, features of the New York City skyline is its Art Deco skyscrapers from the Roaring Twenties. Giants from another age, they are not just symbols of a time when business titans clashed in their battles to conquer the sky. But, also, they are reminders of the city’s first foray into the world of zoning—the specific set of rules that regulated the use, height, and bulk of every property in the metropolis. The “wedding cake” architecture was the result of developers being required to set their buildings back from the street line as they went higher. For architects, looking to move away from the old Beaux Arts designs, the rules nudged them into a modern style: sleek, dignified, and tall.
New York, BZ (Before Zoning)
It’s hard to believe today but before 1916 there were few rules on what a landowner could do on his lot. Of course, any structure had to conform to fire and safety codes. And, from 1901, new tenement buildings were more regulated. But for the rest of the city, there were no restrictions on use or height. Factories could exist side-by-side single family homes, and skyscrapers could rise straight up to the moon. Lower Manhattan was a dense jumble of all kinds of buildings, from high-end offices to factories to warehouses to stores to forgotten 18th century townhouses. The new building technology allowed for structures to rise twenty, thirty, or even fifty stories. The narrow streets were being turned into dark caverns, while throngs of workers poured in and out of the district like blood from a beating heart.
Brooklyn and Queens: The Wild West
It was not just the congestion and shadows that worried planners, social reformers, and government officials, it was also the future growth of the city itself. About half of the City of Greater New York—comprised of the five boroughs of the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and Staten Island—contained land that was either under- or undeveloped. The subway was being built out to all corners, and the automobile and truck were beginning to have their impacts. The outer boroughs were a Wild West of opportunity and, if not checked, could turn the rest of the city into the same unregulated mess as Manhattan.
Then there were the merchants along Fifth Avenue, who wanted to keep their boulevard a clean, high-class mall. They saw the encroaching sweatshop factories–which made clothes for their shops–and they didn’t like it one bit. They caused too much crowding, which forced their customers to be jostled by the working-class, immigrant riffraff. The merchants petitioned the city to take action against their complaints.
Planning a Plan
Attempts to cure New York’s urban ills had begun at least as early as after the Civil War. Social reformers were horrified by what they saw spilling forth from the dense ethnic enclaves like Five Points in Lower Manhattan. The slums were hives of disease, poverty, vice, and drunkenness. The culmination of the reform efforts was the 1901 Tenement House Act. The law required that new buildings have large courtyards for light and air. And the structures needed to be set back if they rose greater than 1.5 times the width of the street.
By the 1910s, progressives turned their eyes to broader urban problems, beyond tenement housing. Initial actions began in earnest in February 1913, with the creation of the Heights of Buildings Commission (HBC). The HBC was brought into existence by Manhattan Borough President, George McAneny, based on consultations with lawyer and reformer, Edward M. Bassett, who then chaired the HBC.
After studying the building regulations in other cities throughout the world, and what might be constitutional in the U.S., the commissioners felt that the best way forward would be to carve up the land into zones, which stipulated allowable use, height, and lot coverage. Factories would be separated from homes. Buildings would not have outright height caps but would have to setback from the street as they got higher. And courtyards and open space would be required, especially in residential areas. Their findings were summarized in the Report of the Heights Buildings Commission, published in December of 1913.
Based on the report, in 1914, New York State amended its constitution to allow for the city to create and enforce the zoning regulations. With its new powers, the city’s legislative body, the Board of Estimate and Apportionment, created the Commission on Buildings Districts and Restrictions (CBDR) to write the new law. The CBDR was also chaired by Edward Bassett, who continued to be the driving force behind enacting and implementing the zoning legislation.
Bassett recruited the various commission participants from a relatively diverse (for the time) range of backgrounds, including from real estate, business, and civic and planning groups. Though Bassett had his particular opinions about regulating the city (see below), he drew from a wider population in order to get buy-in from all those who had a particular interest, vested or otherwise, in regulating the city’s real estate. In the end, he was able to garner wide support for his zoning ideas. Though not everyone got everything they wanted, they all saw the possible gains from the plan, and, in the end, went along.
As historian Keith Revell discusses, these supporters fell into two categories. First were the real estate and business communities, which included, skyscraper owners and developers, the Fifth Avenue merchants, and tax officials, who saw the rules as helping to protect private property. By regulating, but not liming, building heights, they saw a way to reduce some of the negative impacts of unregulated property markets without curtailing their ability to make a profit from the land. They were also onboard because of the relatively poor health of the real estate market in the years following the Panic of 1907. They saw restrictions as a way to limit oversupply.
On the other hand, the city planners, municipal engineers, architects, and public health experts saw the rules as way to control private property for public purposes—to empower the city government to begin to systematically attack some of the social issues generated by a crowded metropolis. These people felt that zoning was the first step to a more aggressive approach to city planning, which, they hoped, would follow in the subsequent years (and this was the side Bassett was on).
On the Impact of the Equitable Building
Before we proceed, however, it’s important to rectify a misconception. A conventional wisdom about New York’s zoning laws was that it was a direct result of the construction the Equitable Building in Lower Manhattan. It is frequently stated or implied that amidst the horror of seeing the 38-story building rise straight up along the narrow streets, government officials fled to their desks and immediately drafted the zoning laws. To be sure, structures like the Equitable Building were on the minds of those crafting the legislation, but it’s important to remember that the formal process began at least as early as February 1913, and perhaps earlier due to agitation by the Fifth Avenue Association, who crafted a statement in 1911, hoping to receive special protections for their neighborhood.
Rebuilding after the Fire
The Equitable Building was announced on August 13, 1912, and renderings were circulated in the press. It was built to replace the previous Equitable Building, which burned to the ground in a fire (which was also a constant concern of city leaders). But it was not completed until 1915, at least two years into the legislative process. Certainly, during its construction from 1913 to 1915, people saw the Equitable Building as a terrible example of too much bulk, but the zoning framers were focused on the entire city, and skyscrapers occupied only one, albeit significant, part of their attention.
Lower Manhattan had achieved it cavernous status over the preceding two decades. As examples, the HBC’s report applies the proposed height rules to eight skyscrapers already completed or in the works. Though the Equitable was among the eight, they found all would have been reduced, to some degree, in bulk or height if completed with the rules in effect. In the 299-page, Final Report of the Commission on Building Districts and Restrictions, the Equitable Building doesn’t make its first mention until page 105, and, in total, is referenced on only four pages. Again, this is not to say the Equitable wasn’t on people’s minds, but only that it was one example of many tall buildings and the problems created by them as a class of structures. Suffice it to say, the evidence strongly suggests that the 1916 zoning codes would have passed even without the existence of the Equitable Building. No one building was that powerful.
And thus on July 25, 1916, the New York City government adopted the nation’s first comprehensive zoning ordinance. It was “comprehensive” because every single of piece of property with the borders of New York was subject to its rules. Compared to today, it was relatively simple. Three set maps were created, regulating height, use, and lot coverage.
The ordinance created five height districts. Each was designated by a “multiple,” which established how high a building could rise straight up before it had to be set back from the street line in relationship to the width of the street (1, 1.25, 1.5, 2, 2.5). In other words, the multiple created an “envelope” into which the building had to fit. The idea was that as a building got taller, the setback ensured that some sunlight would be available on the street.
For example, say a lot was on a street that was 60 feet (18.3 meters) wide. In a 2-times district, the building could rise 120 feet (36.6 meters or about 10 stories) before it had to be set back. After that it could rise four feet for every two feet set back. A tower could rise to unlimited height if its footprint was no more than 25% of the lot area. The most liberal zone was the 2.5-times district in Lower Manhattan. Much of Midtown was a 2-times district. Most of the outer-borough suburban areas were 1-times districts.
The second set of maps established three use zones: residential, commercial (offices, retail, light industrial), and unrestricted (for any type of property but were intended for large polluting factories, utilities, and port and transportation facilities). About two-fifths of Manhattan, and about two-thirds of the entire city was zoned as residential.
Lastly, the ordinance regulated the lot coverage, or the area of a building’s footprint relative to the size of the lot. In the most restricted “E” districts, for example, it was necessary that the first floor of buildings cover no more than 50% of the cite, and second floors had to cover no more than 30%. The least restricted “A” districts could have nearly 100% coverage.
What Hath Thou Wrought?
While I will have to more to say in future posts about the long run consequences of the 1916 regulations, the questions remain: were they successful and did they unfold as intended? The answers, of course, depend on the eye of the beholder. The ordinance was a paradoxical document. On one hand it represented a radical assertion of the right of city government to control private property, and yet, on the other hand, it largely locked in the city’s existing spatial structure. Tall buildings were permitted in Lower Manhattan and Midtown. And the far flung reaches of the city were to be set aside for one- and two-family homes. Factories were allowed to remain along the shores; and apartment buildings were to hug the subway lines. As Revell writes,
Height and use districts were based on largely preexisting patterns of development, and their implementation required neither the relocation of industries nor the removal of tall buildings. The ordinance stabilized those patterns, giving official sanction and legal protection to the status quo. At once sweeping and conservative, the zoning ordinance grew out years of failed attempts to unite private and public efforts to guide the growth of the city’s landscape, especially in lower Manhattan.
For Edward Bassett, the ordinance did not live up to his hopes and expectations. First, he was of the mindset that the zoning codes would be the first step towards a much more involved role for city government. The zoning rules were an indirect method of planning in that they basically established what could not be done, but not what must be done. As a result, they left the real estate market largely intact. But Bassett’s hope was that once the state and city established the power to control private property, planners would be free to actively arrange New York to produce what they envisioned as the “good” city. But this never materialized.
Bassett was also a staunch opponent of skyscrapers. By focusing on their high costs (and ignoring their benefits), he was convinced they were inefficient and a misallocation of resources. His statements echoed many of the time, who saw them as inappropriate for a well-designed city:
Few skyscrapers pay large net returns. Most of them pay only moderate returns. The cost per cubic foot of tall buildings is greater than that for low buildings.…However, the very tall buildings demand many things out of proportion to their increased bulk….But even though a high building may pay a moderate net return as long as it is isolated and surrounded by low buildings so that all its floors and offices are light and attractive, the result may be very different after its is surrounded by similar buildings, shutting off light and reducing rentals on the lower floors.
He was convinced that the 1916 zoning rules would basically “tax” the skyscraper out of existence. The report of the HBC states,
For plots of normal size, it is estimated that buildings will reach their economic height when through the application of the court and set-back regulations the area of the building has been reduced to about 60 per cent of the area of the plot. This will mean that for buildings on an interior plot on a sixty foot street, the economic height limit will be about 14 to 17 stories. On a corner plot on a 100 foot street, the economic height limit will be probably 16 to 20 stories.
Though there was nearly a decade-long lull in skyscraper building after 1916, because of World War I and a sharp depression in 1920-21, when developers returned to highrise office construction in the mid-1920s, they did so with a vengeance, constructing the great Art Deco giants we know and love. But Bassett complained that developers were gaming the system, and that height caps should have been imposed. By amassing very large plots, developers could construct their super-high towers and still follow the zoning rules. The completion of the Empire State Building in 1930, for example, only helped to fuel the belief that the law was almost as good as no law at all. In the end, urban economics would continue to assert itself. Density and congestion in the central city were going to be the norm. We would get the skyline we have today as a result.
The Evolution of Zoning
The ordinance did allow for appeals from property owners to change local zoning designations; and appeal they did! By 1959, the code contained eight pages of single-spaced line items listing modifications. Most were for downzoning—for making neighborhoods less dense. And by the late 1940s, there was a growing belief that the times had changed enough to warrant a revision or re-writing of the zoning codes. This led to the Zoning Resolution of 1961, which is largely what the city has today. (A discussion of these rules are left for future posts.)
But the 1916 codes, at the time, represented the most aggressive approach a government could take to obtain approval from the city’s diverse communities. The zoning founders had in mind a much more regulated and dispersed city. They were operating with very specific beliefs about the evils of congestion and hyper-density, and they were determined to impose their ideas on the city. Since then, however, economic science has developed tools to better analyze the costs and benefits of urban life. In the next blog post, we turn to what this economic analysis would say about the New York’s 1916 zoning resolution that changed America.