2016 marked the 100th anniversary of New York City’s zoning code. You might not immediately think this an occasion to break out the champagne, but then again, it’s hard to overstate the impact the code has had on America’s most iconic city. As the New York Times pointed out in a recent article, there is barely an inch of the island of Manhattan that hasn’t been touched by the building code. From the tiered design of the Empire State Building to the coziness of Greenwich Village, the city we know and love came to us, to a large extent, through the code.
How things have changed: Manhattan as depicted in 1873 …
New York was the first American city to develop a comprehensive building code. Originally, the code was designed to stem the proliferation of overcrowded, dangerous tenements. Over time, however, the code changed to meet new challenges, including environmental and safety standards. Most recently, Mayor de Blasio received approval for an affordable housing scheme designed to slow the rise of gentrification.
Because the code is always changing, many of the city’s buildings would never be approved for construction today. As the Times reports, a real estate investment firm called Quantierra recently combed through thousands of records and found that a full 40 percent of the city’s buildings fail to meet current guidelines.
… A photograph of the same region in 1961 …
“Many buildings in distinctive Manhattan neighborhoods like Chinatown, the Upper East Side and Washington Heights could not be erected now: Properties in those areas tend to cover too much of their lots (Washington Heights), have too much commercial space (Chinatown) or rise too high (the Upper East Side),” notes the Times. “Areas like Chelsea, Midtown and East Harlem, on the other hand, would look much as they do already.”
“Look at the beautiful New York City neighborhoods we could never build again,” said Stephen Smith of Quantierra. “It’s ridiculous that we have these hundred-year-old buildings that everyone loves, and none of them ‘should’ be the way they are.”
As we move forward, it is important to keep in mind that the code literally shapes the landscape of the city. In this sense, government officials should take care to ensure that they aren’t creating rules that would obliterate the aspects of the city people love.
… And Manhattan as we see it today.
However, it is also important to keep in mind that the code helps preserve the city, as well. As the Times notes, nearly three quarters of Manhattan was built between 1900 and 1940. Because the new codes are more restrictive, developers have an incentive to keep older buildings rather than demolish them.
A major challenge with the code is its opacity. Although it has important implications for all residents of the city, few residents can understand it. That is why the Municipal Art Society of New York has called for an overhaul of the code that would render it more intelligible to ordinary citizens.