On Occasion of Zoning Code’s Centennial, Exhibit Seeks to Illuminate how Zoning Shapes the City & Our Experience of It


Portion of exhibit. Image Credit: CityLand.

Exhibit traces the conditions that lead to the creation of the 1960 zoning resolution, the forms that were created in its wake, the innovation of the 1961 zoning resolution, and the arguments surrounding zoning today. On November 10, 2016, the Museum of the City of New York opened its exhibition, “Mastering the Metropolis: New York and Zoning 1916-2016.” The exhibit uses 150 objects, artifacts and photos to demonstrate how 100 years of zoning has guided the City’s growth, and its urban experience.

At the preview, Museum Director Whitney Donhauser stated zoning laws were fundamental to the shaping of New York, but “shrouded in mystery.” She expressed her ambition that Museum visitors would leave the exhibit with a “full understanding of the invisible forces” that shape the built environment and “unparalleled skyline” of the City. The exhibit intends to explicate the “colossally ambitious” laws’ efforts to balance the “complex and competing tensions of modern development.”

The exhibit is ordered chronologically, beginning with images of turn-of-the-century New York, and the conditions that spurred the creation of a zoning code. As the City’s population grew, technological advances allowed for the construction of ever-taller buildings. Lack of light and air to the streets and dwellings became a significant problem. Increased density also led to sanitation and health concerns.

The exhibit demonstrates how zoning is used to separate and order uses, keeping industrial materials away from residential communities, and structuring the density of commercial, residential, and manufacturing uses throughout the City. The 1916 zoning resolution preserved light and air by mandating setbacks on tall building. The exhibit includes studies by architectural draftsman Hugh Ferris exploring the possibilities of skyscraper envelopes under the newly enacted code.


Hugh Ferris renderings in response to 1916 Zoning Resolution. Image Credit: CityLand.

The Zoning code was updated in 1961. Associate Curator Eric Goldwyn explained that the 1961 revisions were influenced by Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building, with “tower-in-a-park” designs gaining favor over the tiered “Wedding-cake” style. The 1961 resolution also introduced the creation of public benefits in private developments through zoning, particularly public spaces, delineating the bonus floor area developers could gain in exchange for creating public amenities. In subsequent years, public benefits have grown to include affordable housing, community space, subway station improvements and more.

A portion of the exhibit titled “Creating Suburbs” demonstrates some of the ways the zoning resolution shaped the City outside Manhattan, particularly the growth pattern of Staten Island. The Museum also elucidates to how zoning protects and preserves open spaces throughout the City.

Under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and City Planning Chair Amanda Burden, forty percent of the City was rezoned, and the exhibit illustrates some of the controversies, as well as the results, of some New York communities, such as Greenpoint and Williamsburg.

The exhibit ends by exploring contemporary issues, such as the controversies surrounding Mandatory Inclusionary Housing and upzoning under Mayor Bill de Blasio. It also returns to the recurrent issue of light and air, one of the inciting issues which spurred the original zoning resolution, that have again become relevant in the age of “supertalls,”—  skyscrapers reaching heights above  1000 feet.

Museum of the City of New York, Mastering the Metropolis: New York and Zoning 1916-2016 (Nov. 10, 2016).

By: Jesse Denno (Jesse is a full-time staff writer at the Center for NYC Law).

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