Serving The Grid: Urban Planning in New York

As nationally Americans daily digest the awful choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump for president, and New York’s tabloids ink over the tedious corruption of its officials, it’s worth noting that     this month marks the centennial for quite a significant landmark in American urban planning and architecture. In July 1916 New York City’s government passed the country’s first comprehensive zoning code. The 1916 Resolution regulated the shape of skyscrapers and separated residential and business districts in Manhattan, though not in the ‘outer boroughs’ that united with the island in 1898.

While it is the proclaimed comprehensiveness of the resolution that earns its place in history it was by no means the origin of what passes for urban planning even in New York. The year 1811 saw Manhattan’s infamous grid plan laid out. If the grid forever relieved tourists from the maze of lower Manhattan’s winding roads, it certainly dampened the city aesthetically and limited its green spaces. In 1849 Walt Whitman lamented ‘Our perpetual dead flat and streets cutting each other at right angles, are certainly the last things in the world consistent with beauty of situation.’ Henry James hated the city’s ‘primal topographic curse, her old inconceivably bourgeois scheme of composition and distribution, the uncorrected labor of minds with no imagination of the future and blind before the opportunity given them by their two magnificent water-fronts.’ Edith Wharton was turned off by ‘rectangular New York…this cramped horizontal gridiron of a town…hidebound in its deadly uniformity of mean ugliness.’ However it did achieve its main purpose of forming uniform blocks that can easily subdivided and sold, mirroring the dividing of farmland that was taking place before the plan.

Also preceding the 1916 resolution and was the building of the subways. The first subway opened in October 1904, and though funded with public money to the tune of $35 million, it was built and operated under the direction of August Belmont (Belmont supplied the cars, signals, and other equipment from his own funds) and his Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT). If New York’s subway is an engineering marvel that opened vast spaces of the city to waves of immigrants and their children they were built by business interests at a time when idea of ‘conflict of interests’ was largely foreign. Charles T. Barney, director of IRT in 1900 and one of the city’s top speculators, exploited his inside knowledge about the coming subway’s route through upper Manhattan to buy up property in Harlem, Washington Heights, and the Bronx, organizing a syndicate commanding $7 million. Belmont himself speculated with land on City Island with the same advance knowledge (see Clifton Hood’s 722 Miles: The Building of the Subways and How They Transformed New York).

Builders buying that land faced great pressure to develop their property in order to recoup their investment and pay back loans. Predictively they focused on housing that could be built quick, cheap, and profitable given the high land costs. That could only have meant tenement expansion. It is true given that the Tenement Law of 1901 required windows in each room, fire escapes, and more open space, the new tenements in the Bronx were generally considered by the many that moved there an improvement over the squalor of the infamous Lower East Side (where it should be noted the original IRT lines didn’t go near due to its lack of open space speculative opportunities). Yet it’s also true that there was much haphazard development and the tenement reform wasn’t applied everywhere. When the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company’s subway opened the eastern part of Brooklyn for development the speculative nature of neighborhood housing (and many of the tenements there were too small to be regulated), particularly in Brownsville, was a main cause of the long term decline of the neighborhood. Real estate types lost interest in the subways by the time the city finally built the IND lines in the 1930s to serve the earlier developed areas their lines ignored (by then the real estate industry was looking to cars and highways to serve the purpose the first subways performed).

While having a progressive sheen the 1916 Resolution was motivated by the same sort of dynamic. A century ago in Manhattan businesses often meant factories which meant that the separation business and residential districts served to separate workers from fashionable shopping districts, such as keeping the garment district from encroaching on 5th Ave. The immediate impetus for the resolution is said to be the completion of the monstrous Equitable Building on Broadway in 1915 (though the ordinance was drafted two years before Equitable was finished). At 42 stories and a think 538 feet the Equitable Building cast a long enough shadow to block out sunlight for arches. Light and air were issues and not just for health reason. As the website NYC zoning puts it:

Rising without setbacks to its full height of 538 feet The Equitable Building cast a seven-acre shadow over neighboring buildings, affecting their value and setting the stage for the nation’s first comprehensive zoning resolution.

The resolution didn’t regulate height, as Chicago would do for a time, but required that after a certain height the structure had to be set back, i.e. made skinnier as it got taller, hence the ‘wedding cake’ effect of New York’s Jazz Age skyscrapers. The particular height required for the setback depended on the width of the street on which the building was located. The resolution did lead to the building of the city’s most architectural pleasing skyscrapers. In addition to the Woolworth Building, which preceded the ordinance and is considered its inspiration, the subsequent epoch saw the erection of the Chrystler Building as well as the Empire State Building.

Unfortunately the glass-and-steel era arrived to flood the skyline with eyesores. Today civics groups protest the grotesque boondoggles sprouting along Billionaires’ Row. Built with superstrong concrete and new wind testing that can fit a skyscraper within a few lots, Central Park’s south side is virtually shadowed by a perimeter of half empty towers. The activists invoke the aura of 1916 by rightly point out the skyline’s distortion is due to antiquated building codes that are well behind the technology.

he historical thread that ties these trends together is a city, under the influence of its powerful real estate industry, spurning comprehensive planning for ‘market’ forces in the form of short-term speculation. As Tom Angotti writes in his book New York for Sale: Community Planning Confronts Global Real Estate, the 1898 consolidation presented an opportunity for regional planning given there was vast amounts of sparsely populated territory and substantial farmland. Yet even given this semi-blank slate the new central government, strongly influenced by the real estate industry, rejected comprehensive planning for the entire city. The city’s main government body was the Board of Estimate which included borough presidents tied to local machines that protected real estate development (Manhattan developers being the most powerful of the bloc). As a result the city allowed the real estate industry the initiative to develop the outer boroughs. Angotti writes:

This resulted in an overdeveloped city core, sprawl in the Outer boroughs, subway lines that did not connect with one another, poorly served portions of the outer boroughs, a dearth of open space, and lack of public places. Farmland was completely wiped out by uncontrolled real estate speculation, eliminating any possibility of integrating food production and consumption (which occurred in many European cities and is now a cornerstone of twenty-first-century sustainable urban development).

In sum, urban expansion in the new region was driven by the subdivision of land for speculative development, as it had been from the start in Manhattan.

The beat goes on in the present time. The city’s mayor, the most progressive mayor in at least two decades, touts as the most significant legacy of his first term a housing plan that accepts gentrification as a fact of life, relying on real estate speculation and subsidizing large developers for the construction of a small percentage of ‘affordable units’. There’s a streetcar plan along the East River waterfront that amounts to a subsidy for the developers flooding it with luxury condos- that development itself a product of a rezoning by the city’s previous mayor.

Meanwhile the first tenants at the newest Manhattan neighborhood have started to move in. Hudson Yards, created by the Bloomberg administration, is billed by its developer Related Company as ‘the largest private real estate development in American history.’ In fact it is an egregious giveaway (the largest in the city’s history according to James Parrott of the Fiscal Policy Institute and former chief economist for the City’s economic policy office) that has thus far cost the city $650 million in tax breaks, along with the favor a $3 billion bond offering to expand the 7 subway line one stop to the new neighborhood. Hudson Yards will add millions of unneeded office space, the main purpose of which is to expand he business district west of 8th Ave into what’s left of working and middle class Hell’s Kitchen, the last such space anywhere near Manhattan’s center.

As the centennial for the first zoning code passes it’s clear that the fight true urban planning in New York remains an uphill battle.

Joseph Grosso is a librarian and writer in New York City. He is the author of Emerald City: How Capital Transformed New York (Zer0 Books).