Using Zoning to Foster Vibrant Communities

Next New York: Zoning + Development, April 5, 2013

Daniel Brodsky
Mark Ginsberg
Will Goodman
Meredith Kane
Theodore Liebman
Andrew Lynn
Ronald Shiffman
Marilyn Taylor


MARILYN TAYLOR: Should we start thinking about shifting what zoning does? Should we get rid of the concentration on the tiny details, which we may not actually need anymore? You know, the 800+ pages of the New York City Zoning Resolution contains a lot that we don’t need if we really shift to a focus on results rather than regulations.

RONALD SHIFFMAN: What we attempted in the community’s proposed 197a plan for Williamsburg was exactly that. We proposed taking the King-Spadina zoning model up in Toronto and applying it in New York. The idea is simple: you set performance standards, you create the envelope, and you let the developer do whatever it needs within that as long as it’s predictable. You could increase densities here or there, but you could also do a lot of other things as long as you achieve both the urban design goals and the community goals.

WILL GOODMAN: I don’t even know if the 800 pages of environmental impact statements ask the right questions. It’s so unwieldy it becomes almost impossible to change. We should start to really just think about performance and outcomes and start by asking: what are the outcomes that communities really want? What is a healthy community? What are the social, environmental and economic components that we really want to start shooting for? 

THEODORE LIEBMAN: New zoning should benefit from hindsight. We have made big mistakes in quantifying everything for the sake of ease, rather than set out to create qualitative performance standards that truly improve how we live in our cities.

MARK GINSBERG: Zoning is a tool of planning. Shouldn’t we be first talking about comprehensive planning? Maybe one could argue that PlaNYC is the closest thing that the city has to a comprehensive plan. We need to be talking about citywide issues and zoning individual communities as one component.

DANIEL BRODSKY: I agree with you; zoning is just one tool. We should first consider the outcomes and then establish what the zoning should be.

RONALD SHIFFMAN: Zoning really should allow you to build to the carrying capacity of the social, economic and physical environment. If you then allow a bonus above that, you are overburdening the existing infrastructure. Two examples are parts of the Williamsburg waterfront and the proposed Atlantic Yards development. The only other possibility is to reduce the maximum and then to reach the maximum when you transfer development rights, which is unfair to the development community. We should begin to think about what the maximums should be given the infrastructure—transportation routes or street capacity, for example. 

Sometimes, by the way, we build too low as was the case in Community Board 4 in the Bronx and parts of East New York and the Broadway Triangle in Brooklyn.

. . .

MEREDITH KANE: What the City has done, and it’s been an interesting approach, has been zoning that builds up with incentives, where you’re not just rewarding the property owner with windfall on an upzoning, but you’re actually using zoning as a tool to create value for the public. Basically, the City is having developers buy increased FAR, whether through a transfer fee or by building required improvements, and so is therefore using upzoning to create the public realm that we want.

 . . .

ANDREW LYNN: You ought to plan the transit before you upzone, but it’s often hard to know what to expect.

RONALD SHIFFMAN: I always like to think of the sign along the train lines to East New York. It said: Lots for Sale. The train helped develop East New York. If you look at what developed the Grand Concourse, it was the train line! 

ANDREW LYNN: One example where that recently worked very well was the 7 Train extension.

RONALD SHIFFMAN: Given Sandy, and given the fact we need communities in this region along the coast to work together, why isn’t the Port Authority being talked about as a robust vehicle for doing much of the planning for the region? 

I remember when the Port Authority funded some of the planning studies in Long Island City to look at how the waterfront should be developed. 

The Port Authority has a key role here to play because they’re the one entity that bridges New Jersey and New York, and they really can begin to bring the two states together and deal with some of the issues that we’re going to have to deal with over the next decades when we’re addressing climate change!