History of NYC Zoning & Building Types

From the mid-nineteenth to late nineteenth century, a rapid-fire dialogue between zoning laws and building typologies characterized city planning. Any building types mired in the qualities of centuries-old predecessors were forced to adapt to developments in technology and concerns for public well-being. Extensive public discourse influenced the decisions of architects and city planners in determining building and zoning regulations in 1879, 1901, and 1916. In 1961, city planners again responded to increasing problems by revising those regulations. The building typology born from those reforms, the Modernist High-rise and plaza, became ubiquitous within a decade. Those regulations continue to define the building norms of today. But in the few decades after that building type's rise in popularity, the pressure on architects rose again. The demand for the typology's conformity with contemporary conditions and new architectural theories recommenced the cycle of reform, just as past building types had experienced. 

It is worth noting that in the history of zoning in New York, each of these cycles produced a signature building type: the Alphabet Building, the Stepback Skyscraper, and the Modernist High-rise and plaza duo. The popularity of a building type persists roughly forty to fifty years before being challenged by new technology or public attitudes. Today, we are on the cusp of a new cycle. A new building type will emerge. But in the larger scheme, urban planning has seen far less reform; New York is in need of new zoning guidelines.


1870s to 1900s

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Housing Tenement Acts & the Alphabetic Building

CATALYST: Overcrowdedness posed safety and health problems. At the time, the absence of elevators and lack of advanced steel engineering were the main obstacles to extending building height. Before zoning laws were introduced, developers often maximized building areas by covering entire lots with windowless rooms. By today's standards, these spaces are uninhabitable.

BOTTOM UP RESPONSE: Architects explored new typologies, providing at least one window for every room and designing light wells and courtyards. These aesthetic features had the added benefit of reducing density and overcrowding.

TOP DOWN RESPONSE: The city codified the requirement for fireproof materials and exterior windows, resulting in some of the most common building types in NYC: the dumbbell and alphabetic building typologies.



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Zoning Resolution & The Stepback Skyscraper

CATALYST: With the invention of the elevator and developments in steel construction, the primary determinant of any building's height was its developer's ambition. This condition led to extremely dense developments, which shrouded some streets in perpetual shadow. Without regulations over building use, a factory could have also been built next to a school.

BOTTOM UP RESPONSE: Architects limited buildings to a certain height above street level, making room for light and air to reach the streets. The Woolworth Building in Downtown Manhattan was the first to follow this trend.

TOP DOWN RESPONSE: To limit density and increase ventilation, the city mandated height limits with an added requirement: the “sky exposure plane.” To this day, this requirement controls density and protects the light and air reaching the street. At the time, the first zoning districts separating residential/commercial from industrial buildings were created. While these new regulations controlled the shape of what could be built, there were still no laws on how much could be built.



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Zoning Resolution & Modernist High-rise and Plaza

CATALYST: Nonetheless, the proliferation of setback skycrapers led to suffocatingly dense and monotonous streetscapes. To make matters worse, the problem of automobile congestion also developed around the same time.

BOTTOM UP RESPONSE: Designers began to diminish building footprints. Shrinking the foundations reduced density, created public spaces, and increased sun exposure to pedestrians. The Seagram Building and the Lever House, both on Park Avenue, are famous examples of buildings that adopted this trend.

TOP DOWN RESPONSE: Only by 1961 did it become widely acknowledged that existing zoning laws would be needed to control buildable area. As a result, FAR rules were enacted, granting developers bonus buildable area in exchange for public amenities, such as plazas, to be built. Creating FAR restrictions on developments and incentives for developers to provide public amenities also encouraged more variation in building design.


Today: Performative Zoning?

CATALYST: Increasing requests to modify zoning ordinances suggest the awkwardness of current zoning laws for meeting custom needs - for instance, the accommodation of new infrastructure and population growth in East Midtown. Initiatives concerning urban growth and environmental concerns have only become more sophisticated since the Anthropocene.

BOTTOM UP RESPONSE: Technology today enables us to quantitatively assess (1) a building's performance in achieving the objectives of current zoning laws (protecting the pedestrian's access to light and air) and (2) how well a building reduces its environmental footprint, and it does both without imposing upon building design the homogeneity of current zoning laws. If we consider zoning laws as a catalog of society's evolving priorities, we must look forward to a future of performative zoning.


Drawings by Muchan Park