Jason M. Barr February 28, 2023
Author’s Note: This blog post is the first in a series that brings to light Robert Moses’ forgotten role in New York zoning and planning history.
Gotham is suffering from a housing affordability crisis. One reason stems from its stringent zoning regulations, which limit the number of units on each property. Despite the perception that New York is a high-rise city, this is simply not true. Outside of Manhattan, New York is decidedly low-rise, with two-thirds of its properties mandated by law to be one- or two-family homes.
To her credit, Governor Kathy Hochul intends to introduce legislation requiring New York and other cities to upzone neighborhoods around mass transit lines. Her plan is for New York State to add 800,000 new units in the next decade. Mayor Eric Adams has offered the goal of 500,000 new units for Gotham. The fact that upzonings are a key element of Hochul’s plan shows how important zoning is and how it has limited New York’s housing growth.
Planning through Zoning
Reformers who initiated zoning aimed to limit the negative “externalities,” such as shadows and traffic congestion, and reduce urban density for its own sake. They were eager to engage in visionary-oriented master planning but felt they could not legally do so without violating sacred property rights. Planning would have to come later.
A Master Plan of Land Use was finally offered to the public in 1941 by the newly formed City Planning Commission. It, however, was quickly shot down. Whether it would have been good for New York today is debatable, but its defeat also meant the defeat of master planning as a tool. Rather, New York would rely on zoning instead.
The result was increasing restrictions, as the “law of motion” of zoning is inherently “downward” in residential neighborhoods, where the Nimbyists tend to outnumber the Yimbyists. The idea in the 20th century that restrictive zoning would someday create a housing affordability crisis in the 21st century was not on anyone’s mind. Instead, the pervasive belief was that density was bad and must be limited. While urbanist Jane Jacobs would spearhead the reversal of this thought in the 1960s, New York remains a victim of its past.
Moses on the Mount
In the history of how we got here, few realize the role that Robert Moses played. This was in large part because his actions regarding zoning were more in the “negative” category—things that were not done because of his protest (or his failures). History unfolds when leaders make decisions at crossroads in time. A left turn instead of a right one or vice versa means that our present could have turned out very differently.
Moses was like a tollbooth, and nothing got through without his blessing. And when he wouldn’t let someone pass, they went in another direction. In the period from 1938 to 1941, Moses saw himself as the guardian of New York’s middle path and he felt his role was to lay down the law: New York will not cave into its far-left impulses. The City should build infrastructure and parks, and even allow for some restrictive residential zoning, but there will be no over-arching Master Plan that imposes Utopia on Gotham.
The Master Builder
When we think about Robert Moses, a handful of popular narratives circulate. First is that of the “Master Builder.” In his four-decade career, Moses built and built and built, and created modern New York. He cleared old neighborhoods for highways, bridges, urban renewal projects, and public housing. He built scores of parks and oversaw the construction of two World’s Fairs.
Then there’s the narrative about his battle with Jane Jacobs—a David versus Goliath tale about the people versus their meddling government. A rag-tag group of residents, led by Jacobs, “took down” the indomitable Moses to block his building of an elevated highway through Greenwich Village.
Finally, there’s the narrative about his anti-democratic methods. As Chairman of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, he was not directly beholden to leaders or voters and could not be checked by the democratic process. Rather, his power stemmed from the almighty nickel. The toll fares pouring in from his bridges and tunnels were the agency’s to keep, and Moses plowed them back into other massive projects.
The Caro Effect
In 1974, Robert Caro published his masterpiece biography, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. The book has had a tremendous role in defining Moses’ legacy. Caro stresses Moses’ hubris and overreach—the man who became drunk by power and rammed his projects through without considering the harm. Caro cites Moses’ love of the quip, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs. ”
But less known—and even forgotten—was that Moses was a member of the City Planning Commission from 1941 to 1960, and, before that, Moses was a key voice regarding New York’s planning decisions. Reading Caro’s book one comes away with the notion that Moses’ impact on zoning and urban planning was minimal, if at all.
From a storytelling perspective, this makes sense. Residents were displaced to make way for public housing and “slum clearance.” Traffic congestion emerged immediately upon opening the highways. The Cross Bronx Expressway ripped apart communities in the South Bronx. It’s no wonder that Moses’ role in the mundane world of zoning codes and land use has been forgotten. It doesn’t make for good copy.
La Guardia Takes the Helm
Moses’ influence in New York’s zoning history began in the mid-1930s. The Great Depression and the corruption scandal of Roaring Twenties Mayor James “Jimmy” Walker led to the election of Fiorello La Guardia as mayor in November 1933. La Guardia was a reform-minded congressman from East Harlem, and he brought to City Hall his zeal for change. He wanted to eliminate the power of the Tammany Hall Democratic Machine and have the government play a more active role in aiding residents.
In the sphere of city planning, two of his actions were pivotal. The first was that immediately upon taking office, La Guardia brought in Moses as Commissioner of the Parks Department, which then paved the way for the “Power Broker” to dominate city construction for the next quarter century.
Moses gained prominence in Governor Al Smith’s administration in the 1920s. Originally hired to aid the governor in reorganizing the state government, Moses was then given the chance to build parks. In this role, here created the Jones Beach Park system on Long Island, along with parkways to deliver people to them.
La Guardia was eager for Moses to replicate his success within the city, and he was not disappointed. Within weeks of his appointment, funds from the Federal government began pouring in and thousands of employed workers were put to the tasks of creating parks and public swimming pools.
Moses was also a master of public relations. All his projects were accompanied by glossy pamphlets, charts, and maps extolling their virtues. They were distributed to the press and politicians, and they fueled Moses’ desire to engender the goodwill necessary to keep his building operations in constant motion. They also reflected what people wanted to see. Through the slick, “utopian” renderings, New Yorkers could be confident their city was being cleaned up and modernized.
The Birth of the City Planning Commission
The second element of La Guardia’s program was that of charter reform. La Guardia aimed to centralize power in the mayor’s office as New York City had operated more like a federation of boroughs. The borough presidents had relatively strong powers through the Board of Estimate, a “legislative” body made up of the five borough presidents, the mayor, and the city comptroller. Since the Board voted on important budgetary and governance issues, borough presidents would engage in horse trading to promote their agendas, and, as a result, the Board was often parochial in its outlook.
In 1936, the electorate voted for a new charter. Though it kept the Board of Estimate intact, one of the key provisions was the formation of the City Planning Commission (CPC), whose six members were appointed by the mayor. The CPC had a three-fold mandate. The first was as the “guardian” of the city maps. As such, it was directly involved in the rezoning and remapping of city streets and lots. Second, it was charged with the creation of a Master Plan of the city’s land use, transportation routes, and other municipal services. Third, it was to produce a capital expenditures budget and a five-year capital expenditure program for the investments in the city’s infrastructure.
Ultimately, the CPC, however, had to answer to the Board of Estimate. But to give the CPC power, major policies that it adopted would become law unless vetoed by three-quarters of the Board of Estimate.
Moses Says No
It was widely expected that Robert Moses would be the new CPC Chairman. But he declined. At the time, in 1937, he simply told the New York Times, “I’d rather do what I’m doing.” However, in a speech in 1939, he divulged more details:
[W]hen the Charter went into effect the Mayor asked me to be Chairman of the Planning Commission and I talked to my friends on the Charter Commission about it. The point of the story is that no two of them agreed on the functions of the Planning Commission, although all of them were insistent that it was a vitally important body. The conversation became so confusing that it occurred to me that we might get somewhere by means of a practical analogy, simile, or metaphor, and I asked what function the Planning Commission played in the city government on the theory that the city government was an automobile. One of my distinguished charter friends said that the Planning Commission was the steering wheel; another said it was the brakes. They all agreed that it was not the engine or the carburetor. After thinking it all over I decided that moving from an administrative position into the Planning Commission would be trading the substance for the shadow. (Emphasis added.)
The designated powers of the CPC were not only too vague, but were also hidden from view, and Moses would like to keep the spotlight on him. He was, after all, the hero who delivered parks to the people.
When his man declined, La Guardia searched for someone who had both the gravitas to lead the Commission and could also, in theory, adhere to the mayor’s wishes. That man, La Guardia felt, was Rexford Tugwell.
Born in Sincalirville, New York in 1891, Tugwell earned a Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania. He became an economics professor and taught at Columbia University in the 1920s. In 1933, he joined the Roosevelt administration in two capacities. First was as a member of Roosevelt’s “Brain Trust,” a group of intellectuals who gave advice to the president. Second, he served in various positions in the Department of Agriculture.
In April 1935, Tugwell started up the Resettlement Administration (RA), within the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. The RA sought to relocate struggling rural households to newly-built communities in order to provide urban opportunities. The RA initiated the construction of so-called Greenbelt Cities. They were modeled after Ebenezer Howard’s concepts, as espoused in his 1898 book Garden Cities of To-morrow, where large greenbelts enclosed low-densities towns.
“Rex the Red”
Tugwell was a controversial figure and was labeled by his enemies as a “Rex the Red.” He was nudged out of the Roosevelt administration in 1936. As planning historian Mark Gelfand writes,
No political figure of the 1930s was more closely identified with planning than Rexford Tugwell….Tugwell shared little of the American public’s faith in the market place as the impartial maker of decisions, either economic or political. The marketplace 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.
Tugwell believed that government should—and will—someday have a “Fourth Power,” a group of planners and social scientists that employ their sharp minds to surgically remove the pathologies of capitalism. As a devotee of the economist Thorsten Veblen, he saw planning as a process where technocrats organize the economy in the way a conductor leads an orchestra.
Urban Planning Philosophy
His philosophy about urban planning, typical of the day, was an offshoot of his broader planning philosophy and was to follow a specific roadmap:
Step I: Conduct a detailed survey of all aspects of the city’s economy, demographics, land uses, and transportation.
Step II: Project what all these elements are likely to be, with and without planning.
Step III: Produce a Master Plan that creates the ideal city in several decades hence.
Step IV: Implement the program.
In short, the urban planning philosophy of the mid-twentieth century can be summarized by: Measure, Project, Arrange.
For Tugwell, the “Plan” was to be made by those who knew better—the academics, social scientists, and planners—and then implemented as a form of noblesse oblige to protect the hoi polloi from the unfettered greediness of capitalists and real estate speculators. Tugwell’s ideal city would be dominated by single-family houses and decentralized employment centers as some version of Garden City Gotham.
La Guardia and Tugwell
To La Guardia, Tugwell had certain advantages. One was his connection to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR). Tugwell had the ear of the president and was connected to members of his administration. La Guardia harbored ambitions to power at the Federal level, thinking he might even run for president during the 1940 election. When World War II broke out, he was angling to be named Secretary of War.
And Tugwell, like La Guardia, was a reformer. They both disliked hyper-density and sought to clean up the slums and create a modern city. However, Tugwell, unlike La Guardia and Moses, lacked the “transactional” personality required for the job. La Guardia and Moses played the game of realpolitik—as opportunities for reform arose, they took them. When the Federal Government was doling out money for housing, the City built housing. When the Federal Government was paying for workers to build infrastructure, the City built airports and highways.
La Guardia also had little tolerance for academic arrogance. For example, in August 1939, he sent Tugwell a “dressing down” letter for the way he ran hearings:
It is my desire that hereafter all hearings of the Planning Commission be held in your own offices and also that these hearings follow the procedure of conferences rather than inquiries or judicial proceedings. By that I mean that the members should sit around a table on the same level with officials who appear before them to “confer on the Capital Outlay Budget.” I have already detected the psychological effect on your Commission of being elevated and assuming a judicial as well as an inquisitorial attitude. Please cut it out. I don’t know exactly what it is but just a few feet of elevation brings an individual or a group of individuals into what they seem to think is e loftier atmosphere. They get a bench psychosis, a superiority complex, which always affects judgment in the reverse ratio of the degree of such complex. This has been disappointingly noticeable in your Commission of late.
Tugwell’s vision also included regulating aesthetics, and La Guardia wanted Tugwell to know that that was not his job:
An employee of your Commission…informed the Housing Authority that all plans had to be submitted to the Commission and they would pass upon the architectural detail. This is not the functional power of the Commission. I have instructed the Authority to submit no plans to your Commission whatsoever. All the Commission is entitled to know is the location, the general layout and the density of population…..
The very life, existence and continuance of the Planning Commission depend upon whether it takes a common sense attitude or whether it becomes a busybody, interfering with the functions of other agencies of government; whether it sticks to facts or whether it indulges in fantasy; whether it acts as practical men or constitutes itself into the barefooted Isadora Duncans, dancing on the lawn chasing Will-o’-the wisps.”
Nonetheless, while La Guardia and Tugwell did not always see eye to eye, they met regularly and shared a common concern that the city needed better planning. Ultimately, however, as I will discuss below, La Guardia failed to go to bat for Tugwell’s major initiatives. They were simply too controversial, even for the reformed-minded “Little Flower.”
Moses and Tugwell
Arguably, more important for Tugwell and his planning visions was Robert Moses. The result of their clashes meant that Tugwell’s three-year stint at the CPC would be stormy, at best. In fact, his run-ins with Moses would prove pivotal for New York’s long run zoning and planning history.
Tugwell had his agenda, and Moses had his, and the two would increasingly come to blows. When they shared a common interest, they would work together. When their interests diverged, Moses would have the upper hand.
Through their letters, we can get a glimpse into their relationship. A typical exchange, for example, took place in July 1939, when Moses scolded Tugwell about his road building plans. Offering opinions that foreshadowed the bigger battles to come, Moses barked,
Dear Rex:…I must say that I was disappointed at the lack of clarity of this [highways] plan. You will recall that I suggested that if your staff had preliminary ideas about these matters they should be kept in the form of memoranda for your files, and should not be scheduled for hearings as part of the master plan. As the matter stands you are putting those of us who have worked for many years on this arterial problem and who are with you in principle, in the position of opposing you.
Yet at Christmas time, Moses strategically sent Tugwell poinsettias, compliments of the Parks Department, and a note with a pleasing tone:
Dear Rex: The Park [sic] Department is happy to present you with this Christmas plant. I recall gratefully the helpful and pleasant relationship with your office during the past year. Best wishes for the holiday season for the new year.
Tugwell responded graciously:
Dear Bob: The poinsettias are beautiful and I am happy to have them. The Park [sic] Department is to be congratulated on raising such wonderful plants. They brighten up my office and are a grateful reminder of that friendly and pleasant relationship between us which you mention in your note. This relationship, I hope will always continue.
Moses in the Middle
Tugwell, however, provided a convenient foil for Moses. The Great Depression created an opening for those on the left to test out their theories. Moses, on the other hand, rose to power with a more focused ambition.
As a young man trying to build parks, he ran headlong into the rich and powerful on Long Island who tried to stop him from building parkways on their lands. Through cleverness and grit, he learned how to beat them at their own game and became known as the “best bill drafter in Albany.”
When he came to the Big Apple, he applied this philosophy locally: Get legislation and money and build quickly; then move on to the next project. With the arrival of Tugwell, Moses began giving public lectures and writing about his opinion of the Planning Commissioner and his ilk. In short, he didn’t like their views. Part of this might have been personal. Tugwell was a busybody interfering in Moses’ plans. But it ran deeper than that. To Moses, government should not impose visions of the “good city” on the citizenry—that smacked of communism.
In a 1939 speech, he provided his philosophy:
I like to believe that I am a forward-looking conservative, that is, a person who recognizes the law of change, wants to keep abreast of the times and to anticipate the future to the extent that it can be visualized, but who wants to hold on to what is good and what has proven its worth before jumping to something new just because it is new. Such a person does not believe in revolutions in human nature nor in cure-alls, nor in the possibility of accomplishing anything really worthwhile in human progress without immense and sustained effort over a considerable period of time.
Ironically, forgotten today in all the debates about Moses was that in Depression-era New York, Moses was, politically speaking, dab smack in the middle. To the left of him were the likes of Tugwell. To the right of him were the laissez-faire-ists who believed that the government that governed the least governed the best. This group would also come to include Jane Jacobs both in her battles with Moses about Greenwich Village in the 1950s and in her writings about cities in her classic book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. They wanted planners of all stripes—both the Tugwells and Moseses—to leave their plans to themselves.
In a 1940 speech, Moses also attacked those on the right of him as naïve:
The ulta conservative group consists of standpatters who believe that the present slums are good enough for those who live in them….These critics assert that plenty of good people have come out of the slums, that only the shiftless stay in them, and that anyway it is no business of the government to substitute palaces for tenement houses and to fix rents according to what people can pay rather than on the basis of carrying charges.
In this respect, Moses’ power was built on a foundation of taking the middle position between the two extremes. He believed that government ought to be a force for good, but that it should not go so far as to allow, as he put it, the “honest fanatic” to “destroy present investments on the theory that no one has a right to own or maintain a building which is unfit for living.”
The Battle to Rezone New York
As Tugwell began to take concrete actions at the CPC in 1939, it was not clear if Moses would be a friend or foe. Ironically, when it came to his rezoning ideas, Moses was a friend. But not even Moses as “Oz—the Great and Powerful” could hold back the tide of anger from Tugwell’s signature proposal.
Initially, Tugwell felt that he should not push through a complete re-writing of the zoning codes until after he released his Master Plan on Land Use, which was to be formally announced in late 1940. In the meantime, he aimed to create intermediate reforms.
Two of the provisions concern us here. First was the idea of so-called non-conforming uses. When the original 1916 Zoning Resolution was enacted, it grandfathered in all properties that did not conform to the new rules. For example, if there was a factory in a district zoned for residential use, it was allowed to remain. The assumption was these nonconforming uses would simply melt away over time. A quarter-century later, however, this was not so. And to this, Tugwell could not abide.
A Bad Sign
To initiate reform, Tugwell picked advertising signs and billboards as his target. He proposed that billboards in certain zones would need to be removed after one year. Additionally, billboards were to be banned from within 200 feet of parkways. This was something dear to Moses’ heart, and he went to bat for Tugwell on the billboards issue.
However, the real estate community, especially those who profited from billboard advertising, along with those who saw the issue as a Trojan Horse for wider enforcement of non-conforming uses attacked it fiercely. Tugwell tried to placate them by extending the elimination period to two years. But alas the Board of Estimate unanimously rejected it. Not even La Guardia supported it. The Board of Estimate, however, left in the parkway provision.
A FAR is Born
The second feature of Tugwell’s zoning plan was the addition of two novel elements to help downzone New York. First was the introduction of zones that only permitted single-family housing. Before 1939, the zoning resolution only limited bulk through setbacks, general uses (residential, commercial, and unrestricted), and lot coverage. But here was the first time in the city’s history that all but single-family homes were banned in some districts. In fact, single-family zoning became a reality in the Feildston neighborhood in the Bronx on November 17, 1939. Single-family zoning was formally embedded in the resolution.
Relatedly was the first introduction in U.S. history of the floor area ratio (FAR) as a zoning tool. In two newly created districts, not only did the original 1916 rules apply, but there were also FAR caps. The FAR limits how much building area can be provided on the lot as a multiple to the lot size. For example, an FAR of one on a 2500 square foot lot, means a building can be one floor with 2500 square feet or two floors with 1250 square feet each. In the “F-1” districts, the FAR was set at 0.75, while in the “E” districts, the FAR was set at 1.9.
The Long-Run Impacts of Tugwell’s Rezonings
While Tugwell lost the battle over non-conforming uses, the CPC established the precedent that some districts could be reserved exclusively for single-family houses and established the FAR as a zoning tool. Moses was silent on these provisions. Likely he saw them as benign, specifically as they related to his program of road building. Downzoned districts of single-family homes or garden apartments were more conducive to automobile usage and encouraged the clearing out of dense tenement districts.
There are some ironies with Moses’ silence on these changes, which we shall discuss in more detail in future posts. But first was that Moses in 1945 would offer his own comprehensive zoning plan, which was a further downzoning. His plan was ultimately defeated, however. And second, after World War II, the CPC would promote the FAR as a planning tool and Moses would become increasingly antagonistic toward it. He was opposed to abandoning the basic 1916 framework. For this reason, even though New York City “invented” the FAR its full-scale implementation would have to wait till Moses was out of power.
The Master Plan
While Tugwell’s zoning proposal had mixed success, the defeat of his Master Plan was the last straw. Tugwell certainly had forewarnings from Moses about his position. In May 1940, Tugwell complained in his diary:
Found Moses had written LaG. bitter letter attacking Commission for “long-haired planning.” All this is attempt to prevent work on the Master Plan which would limit, perhaps, his work in some way. … Mayor undoubtedly showed me the letter in a friendly way, though he does not mind a little hard feeling among commissioners. He’d rather they didn’t get together too much.
After this meeting, Tugwell couldn’t resist the urge to write to Moses.
Dear Bob: I can’t think of anything in our relations during the past two years or more which would lead you to feel that I do not or would not accept your judgment about most planning issues in the city.
There cannot, I think, be any question that I have a mandate to make a master plan. On nothing else is the charter so specific. What kind of master plan is another question. I have hoped that you would give me help on that. Instead you seem to prefer to question the whole activity here developed to master plan work. You have even questioned my judgement as to the division of work in my own department—and done it repeatedly.
I do not want to work up a grievance. I merely want to ask you again if you will not give up your attacks on all master plan work and tell me clearly what it is that you do not like in our proposals. They have been put forward modestly. They were submitted to you even in advance of hearings. None of us here thinks our judgment better than yours. On the contrary we want to embody yours in the plan.….
I hope our relations will not continue to degenerate. If they do, it will not be because I have not tried to make them improve. That, indeed, is the reason for this letter.
Moses wasn’t going to back down. The next day he fired off his response:
Dear Rex: The last thing I am looking for is a quarrel with you, and it seems to me that there is no reason why we cannot continue to get along amicably and with mutual benefit.
On the other hand, we do have one fundamental difference of opinion. This has to do with the long range planning and the interpretation of Section 197 of the Charter….
There is no compulsion upon your or your associates to prepare a comprehensive far-reaching long range Master Plan. Nobody can make you do it and my hunch is that there are plenty of people who will stop you if you try it, and that in the process you will wreck the Planning Commission and lot of constructive work which might otherwise be done….
If you attempt to go beyond these boundaries and seriously consider distance objectives you will bring your Commission and the administration which it must serve into disrepute, and what’s more you won’t get away with it….
There are so many things on which we can all cooperate, and so much enthusiasm and public support for these things that is seems crazy for you to launch highly controversial, long range plans which many of us, in and out of the city administration, would be compelled to oppose.
In early December, the plan for land use was formally released. It was a brief document with five pages of explanatory text and three maps. The first maps showed the land uses and roads at present. And, as the New York Times reported, the second map showed “where the next generation may expect to work and live after slums have been eliminated.” And the third map “foresees the city of the future, probably the third generation from now, when current trends have finally responded to the present foresight of the planners and to the guidance imposed by zoning legislation and public works.” A key element of the Master Plan was that in several decades hence, one-third of New York was to be comprised of a vast greenbelt (an idea that British planner Sir Patrick Abercrombie would put forth for Greater London in his 1944 plan).
Seeing Tugwell step on his turf, Moses ripped him in a letter dated December 10, 1940:
[The Master Plan of Land Use] represents the kind of Ivory Tower, theoretical planning which dresses up revolutionary ideas in obscure and newly invented phrases such as “greenbelts” and “recentralization.” It ignores the city’s government and financial structure, and contemplates an entirely new character along radically different lines…
No one in this city has greater enthusiasm for the expansion of parks and recreation areas than I have.…Actual accomplishments in New York City since 1934…were brought about by people who labored day and night for limited objectives in the face of great difficulties. These accomplishments were not brought about by itinerant carpet bag experts splashing a ten league canvas with brushes of comet’s hair.
I recommend that you file the “Master Plan of Land Use” and forget it. The city won’t stand for it when its implications become apparent. Everything worthwhile in this direction be accomplished by the reasonable use of your zoning powers.
Moses reiterated these statements at the public hearings of the City Planning Commission on December 11. In his personal diary, Tugwell bemoaned not only Moses’ behavior but also the other commissioners, who did not have the nerve cutoff opponents. Tugwell felt his commissioners “like a lot of sheep they shivered in the storm and asked for more by ‘continuing’ the hearings.” Tugwell asked them to take the leap and they hesitated. La Guardia was also silent.
The controversy and the indecision of the commissioners meant that formal approval of the Master Plan was going to have to wait until after city elections in November of 1941. In the meantime, Tugwell’s opponents sharpened their attacks. One business leader, echoing Moses, stated in the New York Times in February 1941 that the Master Plan “was so radical and revolutionary that they will tend to undermine present basic real estate values in the City of New York, without any substantial compensating benefits.”
Moses gets the Last Laugh
By the summer of 1941, Tugwell had had enough. He was offered the chance to become the Chancellor of the University of Puerto Rico and soon after became the island’s governor. He tried his best in the rough and tumble politics of New York City, but, in the end, was unable to win in the arena.
With Tugwell gone, La Guardia once again offered Moses a seat on the City Planning Commission. This time he accepted, though not the chairmanship. Moses now knew what the CPC was capable of and he wanted to be sure that the “Tugwellians” didn’t have any more chances. In early 1942, the CPC formally voted to scrap Tugwell’s Master Plan of Land Use, with Moses declaring, “Green belts are dead.”
Moses on the Inside
While we can’t blame Tugwell’s failure solely on Moses, he did give voice to the collective zeitgeist about city planning in Depression-era New York: It was the city’s job to build infrastructure, clear unsanitary slums, build parks, and get people back to work; it was not to risk the future of New York on pie-in-the-sky ideas that ran counter to Gotham’s laissez-faire spirit.
As a member of the CPC, for the next 20 years, Moses would work from the inside. City planning would now be based on his vision of “short-haired conservatism.” And soon enough, just as World War II was ending, Moses would introduce his own comprehensive zoning reform. This will be the subject of the next blog post.
Notes on sources can be found here.
[…] Robert Moses and the Zoning of New York: Gotham is suffering from a housing affordability crisis. One reason stems from its stringent zoning regulations, which limit the number of units on each property. Despite the perception that New York is a high-rise city, this is simply not true. Outside of Manhattan, New York is decidedly low-rise, with two-thirds of its properties mandated by law to be one- or two-family homes…. Moses was also a master of public relations. All his projects were accompanied by glossy pamphlets, charts, and maps extolling their virtues. They were distributed to the press and politicians, and they fueled Moses’ desire to engender the goodwill necessary to keep his building operations in constant motion. They also reflected what people wanted to see. Through the slick, “utopian” renderings, New Yorkers could be confident their city was being cleaned up and modernized. Your Favorite New York Magazine […]