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Historical Public Health Documents

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New York, N.Y., Board of Estimate and Apportionment, Building Zone Resolution (July 25, 1916). - Original Book - Clean PDF

Maps Referred to in the Code
Section 1 Section 2
Section 3 Section 4

Brief Note on the Historical Context of the 1916 New York City Building Zone Resolution[1],[2]
By Kevin Gray

Not long after New York City signed contracts to create its subway system at the turn of the twentieth century, a group interested in the better distribution of New York's population discussed the possibility of supplementing the rapid transit plan with a regulatory system that would prevent overbuilding at locations affording the best transit facilities. The view was that if new subways produced increased congestion of living and business conditions, they would be of doubtful benefit to the city. Another strong impetus to a zoning plan was the construction of the Equitable Building in 1915, a still-standing behemoth (1.2 million square feet on a plot slightly less than an acre) that obliterated light from several acres of land north of it[3]. Under the aegis of New York's Board of Estimate and Apportionment, succeeding commissions produced two reports, which together became the foundation of New York's zoning plan. The New York State Legislature granted to the Board of Estimate the power to regulate the height, area and use of buildings. The Board then promulgated the Building Zone Resolution in 1916, the first zoning code to require setbacks for tall buildings and to concurrently regulate height, area, and use.

After the resolution was adopted, a citizens' committee, the Zoning Committee of New York, was established to assist in the administration of the new law, and to help extend zoning throughout the country. It was feared that if this rather new invocation of the police power was employed in only one city, courts would frown on it because of its limited use. The future of zoning was precarious at the time, and it was considered that its extension to other cities would be an aid to securing court approval. Judicial approval of extensions of the police power depends somewhat on a widespread opinion that such extensions are needed, and also upon their actual employment by governing bodies. Other cities rapidly adopted the New York City method, in whole or in part.

[1] This note is taken with some paraphrasing from two books by Edward M. Bassett, one of the drafters of the 1916 Building Zone Resolution:

          Zoning: The Laws, Administration, and Court Decisions During the First Twenty Years (2d ed. 1940)

          Zoning Practice in the New York Region (1925)

[2] New York, N.Y., Board of Estimate and Apportionment, Building Zone Resolution (1916).

[3] See, e.g., Elliot Willensky and Norval White, AIA Guide to New York City (3d ed. 1988); Carol von Pressentin Wright, New York (1983).

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