Isn’t this precisely the opposite of what zoning is supposed to do? Isn’t the whole point of zoning to prevent market chaos and create a more orderly, predictable, healthy and harmonious urban landscape? To answer these questions, we must return to the roots of the city’s zoning code.
According to planning lore, one particular development sparked this regulatory overhaul: 120 Broadway, the downtown double skyscraper known ironically as the Equitable Building. Sited on Broadway between Cedar and Pine, the building rose to thirty-eight stories. What pissed off civic groups, however, was less the height of the structure than its shape: the building goes all the way to the lot’s edge, then rises up toward the sky without a single set-back. The developers and architects were accused of urban fratricide, killing the life of the surrounding area by casting a heavy shadow and blocking the flow of air. With this architectural affront in mind, the zoning code did not ban tall buildings per se — construction on the Chrysler Building would begin just twelve years later — but it regulated their form in order to minimize the impact on their neighbors’ health and safety, and to maximize the flow of light and air.
Times have changed. In 1916, the Equitable Building was the problem planners sought to solve; today, it is literally the vantage point from which they view the city: the Department of City Planning has now moved its operations to 120 Broadway, managing the city’s zoning from inside the very building the code was written to oppose.
In another sense, however, contemporary zoning practice is quite in concert with the code’s original intentions. In addition to controlling the built environment, a second impulse motivated the establishment of New York City’s zoning code: the desire to exclude.
It was not just the Equitable building that irked city leaders, but also the proximity of garment manufacturing to high-end shopping. In Kristina Ford’s book The Trouble with City Planning, the author notes that “the proprietors of B. Altman and other fine clothing establishments had noticed that an increasing number of garment-making factories were turning up near their prestigious Fifth Avenue addresses, and these owners feared that their lady customers’ delicate sensibilities might be disturbed by seeing sweatshops where poorly paid and underage immigrant workers sewed lovely dresses for fifteen hours at a stretch under terrible conditions.” Joel Schwartz, in his classic book The New York Approach, puts a finer point on the bigotry involved in such a lobbying push. The Fifth Avenue Association argued that “‘Hebrews’ swarmed from nearby lofts at lunchtime, driving away the patrons of exclusive shops,” so they pushed for anti-industrial zoning that would, in their words, “make it impossible for factories to exist in the heart of New York’s best shopping section.”
Many of those department store owners, Altman included, were themselves Jewish. But they were wealthy capitalists, very much unlike the rabble-rousing immigrants who worked nearby. In the ensuing years, most of the original department stores have since closed; B. Altman is now the CUNY Graduate Center, where I am a student. If the Fifth Avenue Association’s goal was to keep Marxist Jews off the block, their plan was a historical failure. But they were successful in restricting the spread of industry, and in using zoning to reinforce segregation.
New York City’s zoning policies are still discriminatory, but often through different means. In general, there are two types of zoning regulations: use type, which governs the kind of activities (industrial, commercial, residential, etc.) that can happen in a given area, and bulk, which governs the size and shape of new buildings. The Fifth Avenue Association urged the city to keep out poor Jews through use type designations that restricted industry, and thus industrial workers. Lobbyists like the Real Estate Board of New York now urge the city to gentrify majority-people of color neighborhoods by increasing bulk allowances in working class neighborhoods. Given the dynamics of the contemporary real estate market, this virtually ensures a proliferation of luxury construction. Where real estate capital arrives, displacement follows: landlords kick out residents in order to renovate their units or build exclusive new properties; area rents rise prohibitively as a result of intensive capital investment; and pretty soon, the entire neighborhood undergoes a swift and severe transformation.
As for the other original intention of zoning — submitting private development to a modicum of public control — this impulse is diminishing rapidly. Where New York City uses its power to control the built environment, it often does so in order to protect privilege rather than limit real estate power. Restrictive zoning is enforced in upper-class White neighborhoods that maintain relatively low densities, and thus keeps homes big, expansive and separate. Witness, for example, Forest Hills, which, despite being four express stops from Manhattan, maintains a largely suburban landscape.
In the rest of the city, and particularly in those working class and majority-people of color areas now targeted for rezoning, planners operating out of the Equitable Building have given up on the idea of using zoning to restrict real estate. Instead, they (and, crucially, the politicians who appoint their bosses) see zoning as a means to channel investment and extract minor concessions from developers, who are given permission to build ever larger and crappier structures as long as they produce some public benefit — so-called “affordable” housing, open spaces, etc. The economic, social and environmental harm these developments do, however, is always greater than the social good they provide. This is entirely intentional: the system only works if developers want to participate, so planners ensure that the terms of negotiation are ever in their favor. As architect Michael Sorkin argues in his latest collection, What Goes Up, “these deals are only viable when developers feel they have more to gain than they must give back, and so each of these exchanges is, by definition, a bad deal for the public.”