Stay Informed! Join our mailing list:

James Felt

Image(s): 

Sometimes listed as Jacob Felt.

Biography

James Felt was born on New York’s Lower East Side on June 29, 1903. He attended West Philadelphia High School, and continued on to receive a B.S. in economics from the Wharton School of Business in 1924. At Wharton, he was a member of Phi Beta Delta Fraternity.1 Like his father and grandfather before him, Felt was a wealthy real estate developer. After working for his father for a short time, he opened up his own firm, James Felt and Co.2

James Felt was a deeply religious (Jewish) man, and he dedicated many years of his life to public and philanthropic service.3 He served as the Chairman of the New York City Planning Commission, and greatly influenced the Zoning Resolution of 1961.4 After Felt's term as Chairman, the City Planning Commission continued to play an influential role in New York’s development. In 1967, Mayor John V. Lindsay named him to the Chairmanship of the Public Development Corporation, in which he sought to attract new industry to New York as well as maintain existing industry.5

He died in March of 1971, shortly after suffering a heart attack on a trip to Israel. He was 67 years old.6

Offices Held

  • Chairman of the City Planning Commission, 1956- 1963
  • President of the Urban League of Greater New York
  • Governor of the Real Estate Board of New York
  • Vice President and Vice Chairman of the Mt Sinai Medical 1974

James Felt's interest in New York City zoning brought him into contact with preservation issues repeatedly throughout his civil service career.

On January 1, 1956, James Felt assumed the position as Chairman of the City Planning Commission. He was sworn in by Mayor Robert Wagner. As Chairman, Felt called for a comprehensive rezoning of New York City.7 His objectives as Chairman also included: guiding developers to implement the "intelligent improvement of underdeveloped areas," the designating of deteriorating neighborhoods to be improved via a cooperation of private and public interests, the improvement of the school planning process, and the study of the schools' central business districts.8

Following Felt's appointment, the City Planning Commission implemented a two and a half year study of the city's zoning, conducted by the architectural firm of Voorhees, Walker, Smith and Smith.9

In 1958, Felt spoke passionately against the decision to close Washington Square Park to traffic. However, Felt almost always opposed the plans of real estate developer Robert Moses.10

In 1961, James Felt successfully engineered a new zoning resolution, the first change that had occurred since 1907. The new resolution refocused the emphasis of the city's urban renewal plans from demolition to preservation and rehabilitation.11 His influence on real estate development, a result from prospering in the field himself, contributed to his success.12

James Felt encouraged Mayor Wagner to form a study committee in order to preserve and protect historic buildings. The Committee for the Preservation of Structures of Historic and Esthetic Importance was formed in 1961 with Geoffrey Platt serving as its head. Both Geoffrey Platt and Harmon Goldstone looked to James Felt for advice and guidance on how to institute the legislative measures for designation protection of historic structures. He worked closely with the committee, advising them of "intricacies of goverment" and helped draft the legal documents for the New York City Landmarks Law.13

In 1963, James Felt resigned from his post as Chairman of the City Planning Commission, but continued to serve as a member for two more years.14 Felt's resignation occurred right before The Madison Square Garden Corporation, headed by his brother, Irving Mitchell Felt, was scheduled to present its new plan for Pennsylvania Station before the Planning Commission. The plan, to raze the existing Pennsylvania Station and erect an 80 million dollar sports exhibit industrial complex, was approved by the Commission, and the station was demolished.15 The effort to save Pennsylvania Station lagged a few steps behind the creation of the Landmarks Law.

For his services as Chairman of the City Planning Commission, Felt received the Bronze Medallion of the City of New York from Mayor Wagner.16

Archives, Personal Files, and Ephemera

The University Archives and Records Center at University of Pennsylvania
North Arcade, Franklin Field
Philadelphia, PA 19104
  • 1. The University Archives and Records Center at University of Pennsylvania
  • 2. "James Felt, Former Chairman of City Planning Agency, Dies," New York Times, March 5, 1971.
  • 3. Ibid.
  • 4. "City Planning Commission to be Headed by Ballard," New York Times, September 13, 1963.
  • 5. Ibid.
  • 6. "James Felt, Former Chairman of City Planning Agency, Dies," New York Times, March 5, 1971.
  • 7. For more information regarding Felt's zoning resolution, see the entry for the 1961 New York City Zoning Resolution.
  • 8. Bennett, Charles G., "Plan Chief Urges Rezoning of City," New York Times, February 12, 1956.
  • 9. Anthony C. Wood. Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect A City's Landmarks. (New York: Routledge, 2007). Pages 157-8.
  • 10. "Felt, Top Planner to Quit Post he Held since 1956," Village Voice,December 20, 1962: 2,5.
  • 11. "James Felt, Former Chairman of City Planning Agency, Dies," New York Times, March 5, 1971.
  • 12. "Felt, Top Planner to Quit Post he Held since 1956," Village Voice,December 20, 1962: 2,5.
  • 13. Anthony C. Wood. Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect A City's Landmarks. (New York: Routledge, 2007). Page 308.
  • 14. "James Felt, Former Chairman of City Planning Agency, Dies," New York Times, March 5, 1971.
  • 15. "Felt, Top Planner to Quit Post he Held since 1956," Village Voice,December 20, 1962: 2,5.
  • 16. "James Felt, Former Chairman of City Planning Agency, Dies," New York Times, March 5, 1971.