Out of Control Policy Blog

'Rosetta Stone' for NYC Zoning

You know that your local zoning ordinance is too complicated if you need a separate handbook to explain it to citizens. From the Big Apple:

[The differences between the City's zoning districts] are hard to extract from the arcane Zoning Resolution, the document that governs land use in New York City. But they are made graphically clear in the Zoning Handbook, which the Department of City Planning released last week. It is the first new edition of the handbook in 16 years.

"The multivolume Zoning Resolution is like hieroglyphics, known only to the priests of zoning," said Prof. Ross Sandler, director of the Center for New York City Law at the New York Law School in Manhattan. "Opening the Zoning Handbook is like discovering the Rosetta Stone."

The handbook is an abundantly illustrated gazetteer of the city's zoning districts: residential (R), commercial (C) and manufacturing (M). It shows what those mysterious letters and numbers mean in three-dimensional form, using diagrams and color photographs of actual buildings, from single-family homes perched on ample front yards (R1-1) to the densely packed canyon of Lexington Avenue (C6-6).

A handbook like this certainly makes things easier for those of us who prefer to process visual information over text. But just a cursory look at the handbook makes it clear just how micromanaged land use is in NYC. Check out the R2A residential zoning district, for example; it specifies minimum lot width, minimum lot area, floor-area ratio, maximum lot coverage, front and rear yard minimum depths, minimum side yard widths, minimum driveway length, max building height, max perimeter wall height, and minimum parking requirements. Imagine yourself as an architect or builder...once you shape your design to fit all of those mandatory specifications, how much room is left for innovative design? Creativity is micromanaged away by zoning in favor of stale conformity.

To be fair, most local zoning and subdivision ordinances in the U.S. are just as specific and cumbersome as NYC's, it's just that they often lack the visual component to help people easily understand just how regulated they are.

Leonard Gilroy is Director of Government Reform


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