Zoning 101: New guide demystifies NYC’s byzantine zoning code

If you care about New York’s built environment, then you should care about zoning

Max Touhey
New York City’s zoning code is complex and byzantine, and can be all but impossible to understand. But zoning is also a crucial component in how New York City works, dictating everything from where certain types of buildings can go to how tall those structures can stand. It’s not just something urban planning wonks need to understand; if you care about the built environment, then you should care about zoning.
Still, the raw zoning code is thousands of pages long, and can be difficult for laypeople—or even those who consider themselves well-versed in urban issues—to grasp. The Department of City Planning, the steward of that code, knows this; to make the various rules and regulations governing zoning more digestible, it’s put out a series of Zoning Handbooks, offering plain language translations of the code’s complexities.
And as of today, DCP has unveiled the latest edition of the handbook, providing a comprehensive overview of the way zoning works in New York, while also offering case studies and easy-to-understand explanations (including a glossary!) of the various processes.
According to DCP director Marisa Lago, the new reference tome “helps the public understand New York’s zoning rules, how they meet the changing needs of our growing city, and how the public can participate in the zoning process—all in an easy to read format!”
One big addition for the 2018 edition was an explanation of the city’s affordable housing zoning regulations, Zoning for Quality and Affordability (ZQA) and Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH). Those changes were made in 2016, and the new handbook provides a clear description of what those are, and how they contribute to the creation and preservation of affordable housing in the city.
Other additions—such as case studies explaining concepts like as-of-right development, or graphics that clearly illustrate the difference between types of commercial and residential districts—go a long way toward demystifying the process. And as more of the city is reshaped by zoning changes (see major efforts in neighborhoods like Far Rockaway or Midtown East), understanding how it works is more important than ever.
The Zoning Handbook is available through DCP for $45, and will also be available at public libraries.


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