Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Zoning with a conscience (the talk'll be up at Columbia University in the Foreign Affairs building, 420 W. 118th Street, room 409, 2pm Sunday)

In 1961, the city updated its zoning. This time, the city's planners responded to the Modernist movement which had been around since 1910 or so, but gov't isn't exactly avant garde, so it takes time for gov't to catch on.

The principles of Modernism reflect deep social awareness, with its origins in socialism at a time when socialism was not only respectable, but viewed as the best means, perhaps the only means, towards social justice. Rather than merely serving the investors' financial interests, Modernist architects intended to design an ideal world for all. They developed manifestos and principles of design, competed intellectually for innovations that would improve humanity, not just the developer or his rich clients. Stylistically, they rejected the ostentatious flaunting of wealth that characterized the design fashions of their predecessors. Ornamentation signaled useless vanity. Modernism replaced the show of wealth with purely functional form -- no eyebrows over the windows, no more columns and terra cotta. Steel girders and glass walls -- the structural elements -- were left bare in rectangular shapes of structural support: the Seagrams Building is its most insistent and elegant expression.

You'll notice that unlike the Equitable Building that covered the lot completely, and unlike the Empire State Building that attenuates towards its spire, this building rises straight up but doesn't cover the lot. Instead of setbacks to bring light to the street, the new zoning required that as the building grows taller, its footprint must attenuate, not its tower. The result is an empty space surrounding the building, which then can be used by the public as a park or plaza. The method of bringing light to the street is shifted from the top of the building to the bottom where the public can benefit both from the light and from the space. 

The new zoning also introduced a method of restricting the bulk or size of a building. Previously, buildings could be built to whatever height, allowing overwhelming and oppressive density. City Planning Commission came up with a measure of density that still allowed for flexibility of height. The measure of size is the floor area. By zoning for floor space rather than for height, developers were allowed to choose the height of the ceiling freely. 
The New Museum has the same floor area and zoning as its nextdoor neighbor
but because its ceiling heights are 20'+ it dwarfs the buildings on the street.
But their innovation served much more than that. It was now possible to limit the bulk of all the existing or potential buildings in a specific zone. And it allowed landowners to sell their bulk allowance to other landowners who might want to build more than the zoning had given them. The new zoning created a market of space. 

It also had a preservationist consequence for owners who sold their bulk allowance in excess of their existing building. Once an owner has sold his excess bulk allowance -- his developmental rights, sometimes called "air rights" -- the owner can't develop anything larger than the building he already has, so there's no reason for him ever to redevelop his building. The result is a kind of preservationist balance: for every tall skyscraper built by buying developmental rights of small buildings nearby, those smaller buildings are preserved. The new ensures the old. 

It also ensures that the old, small owner loses the value of his property, can't sell it easily, since who wants a building that can't be redeveloped for increased rents, while the skyscraper next door increases the real estate values of the neighborhood and therefore the real estate taxes. The small owner may have gotten a one-time windfall from selling the air rights, but in the long run, he's losing. 

Next up, the current model and how it plays into affordable housing. 

No comments: