New York City has been a pioneer in the development of urban planning in the United States; the nation's first comprehensive zoning resolution was enacted by the city in 1916. But it was not until 20 years later that New Yorkers voted to approve a new City Charter that established the City Planning Commission and gave it the responsibility to prepare plans and to draft and approve amendments to the Zoning Resolution.
Shortly after the turn of the century, the drive to establish a permanent planning agency in New York City was led by two advocates of municipal reform, George McAneny and Edward M. Bassett. McAneny had been elected Manhattan Borough President in 1909; he was president of the City Club and chairman of its Committee on City Planning. Bassett, a lawyer and a former congressman, was appointed to the Public Service Commission in 1907 and played an important part in planning for the city's expanding subway system.
In 1912, at the urging of the Fifth Avenue Association, whose members were concerned about congestion and declining land values, McAneny submitted a report to the Board of Estimate, formally known as the Board of Estimate and Apportionment, calling for more extensive building controls. The board, a quasi-legislative body consisting of the Mayor, Borough Presidents, Comptroller and, what is known today as the City Council President, did not act on it.
One year later, however, the Board of Estimate appointed a Committee on City Planning to make recommendations on possible limitations on the heights of buildings and selected McAneny to be its chairman.
The Committee on City Planning issued its report in 1914 and recommended the creation of a permanent city planning agency. The appendix of the report contained the draft of a bill (passed by the state legislature later that year) which gave the Board of Estimate the power to regulate heights and uses of buildings.
Another committee, under Bassett's leadership, was appointed to gather data necessary to evolve a coherent plan of land use districting. This committee's report formed the basis for the landmark 1916 Zoning Resolution, which reflected borough and local interests (Bassett and McAneny had carefully crafted the resolution to win their support). The resolution regulated the heights of buildings and divided the city into districts by land use. However, no agency was created to administer the new zoning law. The Chief Engineer of the Board of Estimate advised the Board on zoning amendments.
In 1926, Mayor James J. Walker appointed a Committee on Plan and Survey to study planning in New York and to draft a bill that would create a planning agency. The committee was composed of distinguished New Yorkers including McAneny, Bassett, Herbert Lehman, and Nicholas Murray Butler. In 1928 the committee proposed the creation of a City Planning Commission with jurisdiction over the city's physical development. Bassett drafted an amendment to the City Charter intended to create a City Planning Commission. However, the bill died in the state legislature.
Business associations, the newspapers, the Real Estate Board, the East Side Chamber of Commerce, and influential New Yorkers continued to press for a planning body. Mayor Walker sponsored a bill to create a planning department-with power over zoning-headed by a single commissioner. Local Law No. 16 was signed by Mayor Walker on July 17, 1930, after it had passed the Board of Estimate by a slim majority.
However, the new agency was ineffective as it had no real authority. When the depression dictated budget cuts, the department was abolished on February 1, 1933 for reasons of economy.
When Fiorello H. LaGuardia became mayor in 1934, he promised to establish a new planning agency. A commission to revise the City Charter was formed in 1935, with proposed revisions subject to vote by the electorate, and the mayor had his opportunity.
Public hearings on the proposed new charter began in May, 1936. LaGuardia and Bassett spoke in favor of a planning body. Ironically, George McAneny said that a planning agency should be advisory, with no zoning authority. The planning commission was opposed by some elected officials and others, including the Bronx Board of Trade, the Bronx and Queens Chambers of Commerce, and various Staten Island groups. The planning body was endorsed by the Citizens Union, the Regional Plan Association, the City Club, the Merchants Association, and the League of Women Voters.
The struggle for and against the charter went on into the fall. The planning commission proposal remained intact but faded into the background as other segments of the new charter took center stage in the discussions. In November, New Yorkers voted to adopt the new City Charter by nearly 65% approval.
The establishment of the City Planning Commission provided the structure for comprehensive planning in New York City, replacing a haphazard planning and zoning system that functioned principally through the interaction of interest groups and political forces. For the first time New York had a professional agency with a single purpose: to serve the people of New York by planning for the entire city.
Mayor LaGuardia selected Adolph A. Berle to be the first chairman of the City Planning Commission. He was replaced several months later by Rexford Tugwell, formerly an adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Among the first group of commissioners was Lawrence Orton of the Regional Plan Association, who served for 31 years, the longest tenure of any commissioner.
As established by the 1936 Charter, the City Planning Commission had seven members, six appointed by the mayor with the chief engineer of the Board of Estimate serving ex-officio as the seventh member. To ensure the political autonomy of the commission, the six appointees—one designated by the mayor as chairman—were to serve eight-year overlapping terms. In that way, a majority of members could not be appointed during a mayor's single four-year term of office. The chief engineer of the Board of Estimate, a career civil servant, was not subject to appointment for a term.
View the Brooklyn Daily Eagle announcing the members of the newly formed City Planning Commission.
The 1936 Charter also provided for the establishment of the Department of City Planning, headed by the chairman of the City Planning Commission and staffed with engineers, architects, experts, and other officers and employees as needed. Both the Commission and the Department began functioning in 1938.
The commission did not reach full strength until 1945 when Mayor LaGuardia appointed the sixth member. The stipulation that the chief engineer serve ex-officio was dropped when the Charter was revised in 1963 to require that all seven members of the commission be appointed by the mayor. The Charter amendment of 1975 added two requirements: that the City Council would approve by advice and consent the six commission members-other than the chairman-appointed for eight-year terms, and that the commission would consist of at least one resident from each borough of the city.
In the wake of the elimination of the Board of Estimate in 1989, a 1989 Charter amendment made effective in 1990 further altered the composition of the Commission by increasing the number of commissioners to thirteen: seven members appointed by the Mayor, including the Chair; one appointed by each Borough President; and one appointed by the Public Advocate. The Chair serves at the pleasure of the Mayor, while the other Commissioners are appointed to staggered five year terms. However, all members shall be chosen for their independence, integrity, and civic commitment, and the appointment of all members, other than the chair, is subject to the advice and consent of the City Council. This is the structure of today’s City Planning Commission, which reviews nearly 500 public and private applications a year, and has, since its establishment 75 years ago, reviewed more than 25,000 land use applications.
As early as the 1870’s and 1880’s, New Yorkers began to protest the loss of light and air as taller residential buildings began to appear in Manhattan. In response, the state legislature enacted a series of height restrictions on residential buildings, culminating in the Tenement House Act of 1901.
By then, New York City had become the financial center of the country and expanding businesses needed office space. With the introduction of steel frame construction techniques and improved elevators, technical restraints that had limited building height vanished. The Manhattan skyline was beginning to assume its distinctive form.
In 1915, when the 42-story Equitable Building was erected in Lower Manhattan, the need for controls on the height and form of all buildings became clear. Rising without setbacks to its full height of 538 feet, the Equitable Building cast a seven-acre shadow over neighboring buildings, affecting their value and setting the stage for the nation’s first comprehensive zoning resolution.
Other forces were also at work during the same period. Housing shortages, caused by an influx of new immigrants, created a market for tenements built to maximum bulk and minimum standards. Warehouses and factories began to encroach upon the fashionable stores along Ladies’ Mile, edging uncomfortably close to Fifth Avenue. Intrusions like these and the impacts of rapid growth added urgency to the calls of reformers for zoning restrictions separating residential, commercial and manufacturing uses and for new and more effective height and setback controls for all uses.
The concept of enacting a set of laws to govern land use and bulk was revolutionary, but the time had come for the city to regulate its surging physical growth. The groundbreaking Zoning Resolution of 1916, though a relatively simple document, established height and setback controls and designated residential districts that excluded what were seen as incompatible uses. It fostered the iconic tall, slender towers that came to epitomize the city’s business districts and established the familiar scale of three- to six-story residential buildings found in much of the city. The new ordinance became a model for urban communities throughout the United States as other growing cities found that New York’s problems were not unique.
But, while other cities were adopting the New York model, the model itself refused to stand still. The Zoning Resolution was frequently amended to be responsive to major shifts in population and land use caused by a variety of factors: continuing waves of immigration that helped to swell the city’s population from five million in 1916 to over eight million in 2010; new mass transit routes and the growth corridors they created; the emergence of technology and consequent economic and lifestyle changes; the introduction of government housing and development programs; and, perhaps more than anything else, the increase in automobile usage, which revolutionized land use patterns and created traffic and parking problems never imagined in 1916.
1916 Zoning Resolution including all amendments adopted prior to November 1, 1960 represents the final amended version of the Zoning Resolution prior to the 1961 comprehensive amendment.
By mid-century, many of the underlying planning principles of the 1916 document no longer stood the test of time. If, for example, the city had been built out at the density envisioned in 1916, it could have contained over 55 million people, far beyond its realistic capacity. New theories were capturing the imaginations of planners. Le Corbusier’s “tower-in-the-park” model was influencing urban designers of the time and the concept of incentive zoning - trading additional floor area for public amenities - began to take hold. The last, still vacant areas on the city’s edges needed to be developed at densities that recognized the new, automobile-oriented lifestyle. Also, demands to make zoning approvals simpler, swifter and more comprehensible were a constant.
Eventually, it was evident that the original 1916 framework needed to be completely reconsidered. After lengthy study and public debate, the current Zoning Resolution was enacted and took effect in 1961.
The 1961 Zoning Resolution (30.6 MB) was a product of its time. It coordinated use and bulk regulations, incorporated parking requirements and emphasized the creation of open space. It introduced incentive zoning by adding a bonus of extra floor space to encourage developers of office buildings and apartment towers to incorporate plazas into their projects. In the city’s business districts, it accommodated a new type of high-rise office building with large, open floors of a consistent size. Elsewhere in the city, the 1961 Zoning Resolution dramatically reduced residential densities, largely at the edges of the city.
Although based upon the leading planning theories of the day, aspects of those zoning policies have revealed certain shortcomings over the years. The emphasis on open space sometimes resulted in buildings that overwhelm their surroundings, and the open spaces created by incentive zoning provisions have not always been useful or attractive. Urban design theories have changed as well. Today, tower-in-the-park developments, set back far from the city street, are often viewed as isolating and contrary to the goal of creating a vibrant urban streetscape.
Time passes, land uses change, and zoning policy accommodates, anticipates and guides those changes. In a certain sense, zoning is never final; it is renewed constantly in response to new ideas—and to new challenges.
For almost 100 years, zoning has played a significant, sometimes controversial role in guiding growth and change in American cities. In 1916, New York City enacted the Nation’s first comprehensive zoning resolution. Almost 50 years later, the City adopted its 1961 Zoning Resolution to advance a modern vision of emerging economic, social, environmental, and physical realities. Over the past 50 years, the 1961 Zoning Resolution has evolved to reflect new ideas and realities regarding the City’s development. Changes to zoning have often occurred in the context of neighborhood and citywide debates about the nature of growth, change, and preservation in the City.
In this 50th anniversary year of the 1961 Zoning Resolution, the New York City Department of City Planning, the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, and the Steven L. Newman Institute of Baruch College came together to host “Zoning the City,” a day-long conference designed to cultivate new thinking about zoning as a governmental tool that may be used to address major economic, social, environmental, and physical challenges facing New York City in the 21st century. Co-chaired by City Planning Chair Amanda Burden and Harvard Professor Jerold S. Kayden, the conference featured prominent experts who described the urban challenges and the role zoning should, and should not play in meeting them. The conference explored the possibilities and limitations of zoning as New York City seeks to compete globally, offer economic and social opportunities for all its citizens, ensure a sustainable environment, and enhance its public realm.
Approved in 1982, the Special Midtown District has been one of the Department’s greatest planning successes, guiding the development of the Midtown area for over 30 years. To commemorate this success, this digitized collection includes reports leading to the creation of the District, and also includes studies leading to the development of the Grand Central Subdistrict in 1992. Additionally, the CPC reports for the Special Midtown District (N 820253A ZRM) and the Grand Central Subdistrict (N 920260 ZRM) can be accessed.