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1961 New York City Zoning Resolution

1961 New York City Zoning Resolution

The 1961 Zoning Resolution divided New York City into residential, commercial, and manufacturing areas and introduced incentives that forever changed the design of City buildings.

People: Robert Dowling, James Felt, Luther Gulick, Arthur Cort HoldenRobert C. Weinberg 
Organizations: American Institute of Architects, American Institute of Planners, Brooklyn Heights Association, Citizens Committee for Modern Zoning, Community Conservation and Improvement Council, Greenwich Village Association, Municipal Art Society, New York City Planning Commission, the Washington Square Association,   
Public Policy: Bard Act (1956), Save the Village Zoning Amendment
Above: Empire State Building, New York City to Chrysler Building and Queensboro Bridge, low viewpoint, 1932; Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

The 1961 Zoning Resolution reflected significant changes in the urban fabric of New York City. The resolution was the first change to New York’s zoning since the first zoning code was passed in 1916. It was created to suit the changing economy, an increasing population, and the growth of automobile use. The 1961 Zoning Resolution divided New York City into residential, commercial, and manufacturing areas. It introduced the concept of incentive zoning by adding a bonus of extra floor space to encourage developers of office buildings and apartment towers to incorporate public plazas into their projects. In the City’s business districts, it accommodated a new type of high-rise office building with large, open floors of a consistent size. Elsewhere in the City, the 1961 resolution dramatically reduced achievable residential densities, largely at the edges of the City.1 The 1961 Zoning Resolution is still in effect today, though it is continuously being amended.

January 1, 1956: James Felt assumes the position as Chairman of the New York’s City Planning Commission2

February, 1956: Felt indicates that rezoning New York City is his top priority, and he set out to implement his objective.3 Felt regarded rezoning as an opportunity to rally public support for the City Planning Commission.4

April and May 1956: The City Planning Commission held a round of informal hearings on the subject of rezoning. After the informal hearings, the Citizens Committee for Modern Zoning was formed with the purpose of supporting Felt’s efforts. 

July 1956: Felt announces a new zoning study to be undertaken by the architectural firm of Voorhees, Walker, Smith and Smith.

February 1959: Voorhees, Walker, Smith and Smith’s proposal, entitled "Rezoning New York City," is released to the public

December 1959: A revised version of the proposed new zoning resolution was released to the public

March 1960: The new zoning resolution is the subject of a round of formal hearings

September 1960: The City Planning Commission holds its final hearings on the new zoning resolution

October 1960: The City Planning Commission adopts James Felt's new zoning ordinance. At this point, the City Planning Commission sent the proposed zoning ordinance to the New York City Board of Estimate.5

1961: The Board of Estimate approves the new zoning resolution

James Felt's 1961 New York City Zoning Resolution changed the emphasis of the City’s urban renewal plans from demolition to preservation and rehabilitation. Preservation forces in New York recognized James Felt's rezoning plan as an opportunity to implement the Bard Act in New York City, and obtain aesthetic zoning for historic neighborhoods.6 Beginning with Felt's appointment to the City Planning Commission in 1956, preservationists attempted to convince both James Felt and the City Planning Commission to include aesthetic zoning for historic neighborhoods in the rezoning plan.7 The Washington Square Association, Greenwich Village Association, and the borough president’s Greenwich Village Community Planning Board issued statements in which they called for historic and aesthetic zoning.8 The Municipal Art Society, the New York Chapters of the American Institute of Architects, and the American Institute of Planners urged the City Planning Commission to include aesthetic regulation in the new zoning.9 In addition, the Brooklyn Heights Association, together with the Community Conservation and Improvement Council, presented a draft text of what needed to be added to the new zoning resolution in order to make aesthetic regulation possible.10

However, between 1956 and 1961, James Felt was determined to pass a new zoning resolution, and he maintained that the inclusion of aesthetic regulation would have been a hindrance. This may explain why the Bard Act passed in 1956, but was not implemented until after the new zoning resolution passed in 1961.11 The City Planning Commission responded to preservation interests by saying that, "aesthetic control would have a better chance of enactment if added later to the zoning resolution."12 Once preservationists realized that aesthetic zoning would not be included in the resolution, they began drafting amendments in the hopes of adding aesthetic regulation after the resolution was passed.13 Arthur Cort Holden, for example, drafted "Proposed Local Law for Preservation of Places and Structures of Historical or Aesthetic Value."14

The Save the Village Zoning Amendment was one of the zoning regulations that came out of the debate over the new 1961 zoning resolution. In addition to the fact that aesthetic zoning was not included in the 1961 Zoning Resolution, preservation forces were also concerned with another aspect of the proposed plan. On June 24, 1959, City Planning Commissioner James Felt announced that his proposed zoning resolution was not designated to take effect until one year after its passage. The one-year grace period that Felt’s proposal allowed, left areas like Greenwich Village vulnerable to developers, who were in a mad rush to implement new projects while the old zoning rules still applied. After Felt’s zoning resolution was approved, developers filed 150,659 applications to construct multiple-dwelling units before the new zoning would come into effect.15

As a result of this, in order to protect the architectural character of the Village during the one-year grace period, Robert Weinberg proposed that the Village attempt to amend the old zoning, in order to ensure protection in the interim.16 Then, in March of 1960, the Board of Estimate approved Weinberg’s emergency zoning amendment, which in essence spared Greenwich Village from destruction, until Felt's new zoning resolution came into effect.17

“City Planning History: History of the City Planning Commission: NYC Zoning History,” NYC: Department of City Planning. Article retrieved 2 April 2016 
Anthony C. Wood, Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect a City’s Landmarks (New York: Routledge, 2008), page 230.
Ibid, page 231.
Robert A. M. Stern, New York 1960 (New York: Monacelli Press, 1995), page 128.
  5. Anthony C. Wood, Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect a City’s Landmarks (New York: Routledge, 2008), page 231.
Ibid, page 231.
Ibid, pages 230-231.
Ibid, pages 232-233.
Ibid, page 232.
Ibid, page 233.
Anthony C. Wood, “An interview with the first chairman of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, the late Geoffrey Platt.”
Municipal Art Society Board Meeting Minutes, 28 September 1959, Municipal Art Society of New York Records, Archives of American Art.
Anthony C. Wood, Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect a City’s Landmarks (New York: Routledge, 2008), page 245.
”Memorandum No. 6, Suggestions from Arthur C. Holden, Proposed Local Law for Preservation of Places and Structures of Historic or Aesthetic Value,” April 1960. Professional papers of Robert C. Weinberg, Long Island University.
Richard J. Whalen, “A City Destroying Itself,” Fortune, September 1964.
Owen Grundy, “The Boiling Cauldron-GVA,” Villager, 22 October 1959.
”Savers Don Old Hats for Hearing,” Villager, 10 March 1960.