Mayor Bill de Blasio has chosen a mighty strange way of celebrating the 100th anniversary of zoning in New York City. His zoning plan, approved in March, calls for more affordable housing for low-income families, but more housing affordable to the wealthy will be its main achievement.
A century ago last year New York City passed what is widely believed to be the first zoning ordinance in the country. At a time when skyscrapers were coming into vogue, the 1916 regulation set no height limit but sought to prevent structures such as the new 40-story Equitable Life Insurance Building from blotting out the sky. A formula used the width of streets to calculate required setbacks permitting sunlight to filter down to the ground. The setbacks ended up popularizing the wedding-cake style of Manhattan architecture for decades, but was originally intended entirely to make life more bearable for people on sidewalks.
De Blasio’s zoning changes make the 1916 law and its formulas look as if they could fit on a postcard. The changes bring mandatory inclusionary housing to a new level. First, they are mandatory. The reward for developers in city subsidies and zoning exemptions is negotiated in light of the number of affordable units. And deals are configured differently for different parts of town. Finally, local members of council get to tweak agreements for development projects in their districts.