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James Felt

James Felt

Also known as Jacob Felt

James Felt was the head of the City Planning Commission in the 1950s and 60s, where he greatly influenced the Zoning Resolution of 1961.

Organizations: Committee for the Preservation of Structures of Historic and Esthetic Importance, New York City Planning Commission, Public Development Corporation, Urban League of Greater New York 
Places: Madison Square Garden, Pennsylvania Station, Washington Square Park
Above: Sperry Rand Building at 1290 Avenue of the Americas, 1962; Courtesy of Skyscraper City

James Felt was born on New York City’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 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 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 1961 Zoning Resolution.4 After Felt’s term as chairman, the City Planning Commission continued to play an influential role in New York City’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 City 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

New York City Planning Commission
Chairman, 1956-1963

Mount Sinai Medical Center
Vice President and Vice Chairman, 1974

Real Estate Board of New York
Governor

Urban League of Greater New York
President

 

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, and Mayor Robert F. Wagner, Jr. swore him in. 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 government" 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 sports 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

  • The University Archives and Records Center
    University of Pennsylvania
    North Arcade, Franklin Field
    Philadelphia, PA 19104

  • James Felt papers, 1955-1962 (bulk 1956-1959)
    Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library
    Department of Drawings & Archives
    Columbia University
    1172 Amsterdam Avenue, MC0301
    New York, NY 10027
    Tel: (212) 854-4110
    Fax: (212) 854-8904
    Email: [email protected]

  • Oral Histories with Seymour BoyersFrank GilbertRobert LowOtis Pratt PearsallWhitney North Seymour, Jr. 
  • New York Preservation Archive Project
  • 174 East 80th Street
  • New York, NY 10075
  • Tel: (212) 988-8379
  • Email: [email protected]
  1. 
The University Archives and Records Center at University of Pennsylvania.
  2. 
”James Felt, Former Chairman of City Planning Agency, Dies,” The New York Times, 5 March 1971.
  3. 
Ibid.
  4. 
”City Planning Commission to be Headed by Ballard,” The New York Times, 13 September 1963.
  5. 
Ibid.
  6. 
”James Felt, Former Chairman of City Planning Agency, Dies,” The New York Times, 5 March 1971.
  7. 
For more information regarding Felt’s zoning resolution, see the entry for the 1961 New York City Zoning Resolution.
  8. 
Charles G. Bennett, “Plan Chief Urges Rezoning of City,” The New York Times, 12 February 1956.
  9. 
Anthony C. Wood, Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect A City’s Landmarks (New York: Routledge, 2008), pages 157-8.
  10. 
”Felt, Top Planner to Quit Post he Held since 1956,” Village Voice, 20 December 1962, pages 2 and 5.
  11. 
”James Felt, Former Chairman of City Planning Agency, Dies,” The New York Times, 5 March 1971.
  12. 
”Felt, Top Planner to Quit Post he Held since 1956,” Village Voice, 20 December 1962, pages 2 and 5.
  13. 
Anthony C. Wood, Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect A City’s Landmarks (New York: Routledge, 2008), page 308.
  14. 
”James Felt, Former Chairman of City Planning Agency, Dies,” The New York Times, 5 March 1971.
  15. 
”Felt, Top Planner to Quit Post he Held since 1956,” Village Voice, 20 December 1962, pages 2 and 5.
  16. “James Felt, Former Chairman of City Planning Agency, Dies,” The New York Times, 5 March 1971.