On Thursday, April 11, 2013, the Center for New York City Law and the Center for Real Estate Studies at New York Law School presented a Master Class on the 1969 City Planning Commission’s Plan for New York City. Ross Sandler, Director of the Center for New York City Law, found a complete set of the original plans at a recent auction. Mr. Sandler invited two guest speakers to discuss the plan: Donald H. Elliott, who was Chair of the City Planning Commission from 1966-1973, as well as Edgar Lampert, who worked on public development projects in Lower Manhattan in Mayor John Lindsay’s administration.
Elliott discussed how a comprehensive plan was required in order for the City to qualify for federal funding for public housing in the 1960s. In addition, the 1938 City Charter called for a plan but the task had yet to be undertaken. Elliott recalled that the 1969 plan embodied Mayor John Lindsay’s approach to the problems of the City. It was not just a land use plan but a comprehensive plan that attempted to deal with the serious problems that faced the City, and give best judgments and determine best practices for the future. The plan was divided into four major sections:
Section 1: The National Center: The view that NYC is the center of the United States.
Section 2: Opportunity: Jobs existed in the City but there were a large number of people who were unemployed because they were not trained or educated for the jobs available.
Section 3: The Environment: This did not deal with environmental issues like we face today; instead it primarily dealt with the building of housing, and how to make living conditions and our neighborhoods better.
Section 4: Government: Mayor Lindsay was very interested in having a community participation component as part of the development process. Following the Robert Moses era that mostly ignored public opinion, Lindsay wanted local communities to have an impact on government decisions before they were made.
Elliott said that the City Planning Commission and the Lindsay administration were confronted with a planning system that was obsolete and no longer worked. One of the first things they did was break up the City into 62 Community Planning Districts. Presently there are 59 Community Districts in the City, each with its own Community Board. The Commission even held 62 separate public hearings on the plan itself. In addition to the overarching four part theme, the Plan attempted to create 62 separate plans for each district or provide detailed information as to what was going on at that time in each district instead, including the number of schools, quality of transportation and local development. The goal was to help aid the local community boards by providing them with the information they needed to make legitimate plans for their own district.
Elliott said the City Planning Commission hoped to update the plan’s information on a regular basis, but it was not until the era of computers that such updates became much easier and faster to implement. Now anyone can go to the Community Data Portal on the CPC’s website to get all kinds of up-to-date, district-specific information.
In terms of overall development, Elliott stated that the Lindsay administration’s goal was to make the City comfortable to live in and not just a series of high-rise buildings. One of the ways this goal was accomplished was through the use of special zoning districts, a concept developed in 1969. Elliott discussed how the zoning ordinance was intended to apply to districts in the same way City-wide, however, the City’s individual neighborhoods are diverse and sometimes require specialized zoning regulations through the use of special districts to emphasize and preserve neighborhood diversity. Elliott and Lampert used South Street Seaport as an example of how special districts were intended to be used. For the first time in 1970, the City utilized the special district method to preserve the Seaport area, and save it from major development that was threatening the area.
Elliott also discussed the Lindsay administration’s dissatisfaction with the World Trade Center project because the buildings were too tall and it was a state project rather than a City project. Lampert added that there was a political rivalry between Governor Nelson Rockefeller and Mayor Lindsay. In an effort to bring about a 24-hour community in lower Manhattan, Governor Nelson Rockefeller pushed the Battery Park City project, which was built on landfill, and Mayor Lindsay pushed an eastside project that never happened. Lampert and Elliott were surprised that significant lower Manhattan development took longer than expected to occur.
To watch the full Masters Class and listen to the in depth discussion concerning the 1969 Plan, the role of community participation, and the strategy for saving the South Street Seaport, please watch below or click here: (If you are unable to view this, please let us know)