In the Zone

Harlem’s Apollo Theater on West 125th Street. Photo by Stern, 2006

I have always been a fan of the late William H. Whyte and his philosophy of bottom-up city planning. Throughout his career, Whyte advocated human-focused, democratic urban design rooted in pragmatism. I can only imagine what he would say about the spate of rezoning currently sweeping New York.

According to The New York Times, the Bloomberg administration has rezoned more than 6,000 blocks in the last six years. I am consumed of late with three zoning changes in particular: Brooklyn’s Williamsburg and Greenpoint waterfronts, the Atlantic Yards, and Harlem’s 125th Street. Each is poorly considered, pandering to real estate interests while ignoring the area’s history and the needs of residents and businesses.

I have been wondering if there are cities that encourage land-use plans and zoning changes that are “bottom up” rather than “top down.” New York, sadly, is no such place. The New York City zoning and land-use process are controlled by the mayor’s office, which directs the planning commissioner on what to do. These zoning changes require approval by the Planning Commission, with the final plan being ratified by the City Council. With all of the special interests to be answered to throughout this progression, there is little room for or concern over input from local residents and businesses owners. Just look at what happened to frustrated dissenters attending a City Council meeting in May about 125th Street.

Aside from the mayor, the borough president, and the City Council, all participants in the planning process are appointed, not elected by the citizenry. Take the Brooklyn waterfront example: the plan endorses the displacement of existing residents and businesses with a few non-binding concessions for “affordable” housing. It allows for large residential towers at the water’s edge. The city sees this kind of plan as the engine for financial prosperity. There is little consideration for cultivating diversity, for allowing existing businesses to prosper, or for fostering new industry for the broader neighborhood. The prevailing thinking is to attract development dollars that will eventually trickle down into the city’s coffers in the form of tax revenue.

So what’s another option?

I recently toured part of San Francisco’s waterfront where I found thoughtful planning supported by an excellent zoning system that seems to accommodate diverse interests. San Francisco ratifies about ten percent of its zoning changes through referendums. I think it’s high time for New York City to adopt a system that requires zoning be approved by a referendum, at least in cases where massive-scaled projects threaten to impact entire communities. This way, the power over our built world reverts to the citizens who occupy it.

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