By Madeleine Thompson
Since the adoption of the city’s first zoning resolution in 100 years ago, the skyline has seen many grand buildings designed, proposed and, in some cases, built, with heights rising taller and taller. As of last fall, there were 22 “supertall” towers topping 984 feet in Manhattan, mostly concentrated in the midtown area. This Thursday, Dec. 8, the Museum of the City of New York will examine the subject as part of a lecture series that parallels its “Mastering the Metropolis: New York and Zoning, 1916-2016” exhibit.
Given the love-hate relationship New Yorkers have with height, the museum’s exhibit and lectures aim to “examine a century of evolving ideas and heated debates about what constitutes an ‘ideal’ city,” according to the press release. “With this exhibition we hope to shed light on the law’s transcendent legacy by unpacking its intricacies in engaging ways,” museum director Whitney Donhauser said in the release. “Museumgoers will leave ‘Mastering the Metropolis’ with a full understanding of how invisible forces like zoning policy affect our daily lives, and a deeper appreciation of how our unparalleled skyline and neighborhoods from the Bronx to Staten Island came to look and feel as they do today.”
Thursday’s panel, the first of five through March, features speakers who will address supertalls and the ability of the zoning resolution to keep pace with modern development. The other four lectures are titled “Zoning for the Public Good,” “Zoning to Scale: Considering Neighborhood Character,” “Cracking the Code: Fostering Public Participation in Zoning,” and “Zoning Worldwide.”
Hilary Ballon, deputy vice chancellor of New York University Abu Dhabi and curator of a gallery in the museum’s new “New York at its Core” exhibit, called zoning “one of the most significant and influential tools that we’ve had to shape the built environment.” In comparison to Abu Dhabi, which is a younger city with many skyscrapers, New York City’s zoning laws are well developed. “[Abu Dhabi] only established its equivalent to our department of City Planning approximately a decade ago,” she said.
Ballon, an expert in global zoning and infrastructure, called the walkability of New York City “genius.” “It’s walkable in part because of the scale of the streets, the diversity of shops and uses that we see on the street [and] the density of the city,” she said. However, she also called zoning “arcane,” and criticized its complexity and inaccessibility to the average resident. Though she couldn’t begin to guess what the next century of zoning will bring, she said any changes to come would likely be incremental.
Council Member Dan Garodnick, whose district includes most of Manhattan’s existing supertalls, will participate in the “Zoning for the Public Good” forum. Garodnick has been working on a rezoning of east midtown Manhattan that would “allow us to improve our mass transit system in connection with development. He hopes to modernize the zoning code to allow property owners to “have more flexibility in building in exchange for direct improvements to the subway system in the area.” Based on personal experience, Garodnick acknowledged that the zoning code has both pros and cons, and he emphasized the necessity of continually revisiting the topic. “Zoning is one of the fundamental powers of local government, and it’s important that we get it right,” he said.
Thursday’s kick-off lecture, “Zoning at New Heights: Supertalls and the Accidental Skyline,” will take place at the Museum of the City of New York at 6:30 p.m.
Madeleine Thompson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org