On January 19th, the Wall Street Journal marked the 50th anniversary of the current New York City Zoning Resolution with an article entitled Zoning Laws Grow Up . The gist of the article was that under the Bloomberg administration and its current City Planning Director, Amanda Burden, zoning has become a more proactive, nuanced, quality-of-life tool. Zoning is no longer simply about bulk and use. Zoning has become more detailed or "fine grain" as one planner stated in the article; more focused on the aesthetics, design and the social impact of new developments.
There have been more than 100 rezonings under the current administration, many of them drastically changing neighborhoods (e.g., the North Brooklyn waterfront).There have been some bold urban design innovations like the High Line ( a naturalstic park in the sky, planted on abandoned elevated freight tracks) and the resulting rebirth of the Meat Market neighbohood. There is the Brooklyn Bridge Park, a fabulous new additon of park space on unused piers.
According to the WSJ article, "(a) s now practiced in New York, zoning and its achievements have become the envy of other cities, even Paris". The article gushed about how over 150 European mayors, planners, developers and architects convened in New York last July and marveled at these new developments and "the resurrection" of the City since 9/11.
The current administration has also offered New Yorkers more controversial "quality of life" planning initiatives. As noted in the article, the Planning Commission recently introduced a zoning amendment on Manhattan's Upper West Side that would supposedly preserve small shops on residential avenues, but force new bank branches to shift from extended street fronts to second floor locations. Another City Planning initiative that will purportedly assist in curing such ills as obesity and diabetes, offers development incentives for green markets in low income neighborhoods.
One of the more controversial quality of life initiatives of the Bloomberg administration has been the use of design and zoning guidelines to spur the increased ridership of bicycles; and conversely, to decrease automobile use in the City. This has included adding hundreds of miles of new Department of Transportation bike lanes. The City hopes to develop 1,800 bike-lane miles (on streets, in parks and along paths) by the year 2030. The new bike lanes are beloved by some (bike enthusiasts and environmentalists, natch). They are also despised by others in certain neighborhoods, where they are seen as heavily underutilized and a safety hazard (mocked as "Field of Dreams", build it and they will come planning).
Proposed zoning amendments demand developers provide bicycle spaces in new residential (one for every 2 units), office and retail developments. Spaces for bicycles will also be required in public garages .
It is likely that the future will continue to see zoning regulations evolve as a tool to attempt to fix all sorts of perceived urban ills. The important questions posed by the article are at what point do zoning regulations overeach in attempting to micro-manage the future development of the City? We are not just discussing the look, feel, design and amenities of new developments, but how people live in and experience the City.
Perhaps even more importantly, should new design ideas and amenities be encouraged solely through market incentives or mandated top down by the planning bureaucracy?