Some stories you just couldn’t make up if you tried. New York City’s Planning Department resides in the Equitable Building in lower Manhattan, a tower that does not legally comply with their own zoning regulations. They office in a building that their own department determines is too tall, too big, and doesn’t have upper setbacks.
No, this is not The Onion.
The Equitable Building is an unmodulated tower with no building setbacks. It was the first building reliant on elevators for vertical circulation and the developer needed to maximize the building’s area to justify the high cost of owning and operating elevators. Architecture is born out of investments and meeting client’s goals while contributing to and enhancing the urbanity of a place. It’s presence, form and detail are so iconic and beloved that it officially became a National Landmark in 1978.
The building faced enormous public scrutiny when it was proposed. Real Estate Magazine called it a “monstrous parasite feasting on the veins of New York”. The public tried proposing a park or more streets in its place to stop construction but failed. Public outcry claimed it was greedy developers making a buck while blocking daylight and fresh air, making nearby life miserable. These gripes and tactics sound all too familiar to grizzled housing advocates of today.
Now, you may be wondering why I give a shit about this building in New York? Well, this building is the reason why we have a housing crisis and why we have restrictive zoning in my city, your city, and everywhere in the US and Canada.
The reaction to this building is the reason we have single family zoning.
After its construction, a group of reactionaries got together and implemented the first zoning code in US history. The 1916 Zoning Resolution was created to make sure a similar building is never to be built again. They introduced upper-level setbacks and modulation requirements disguised as “access to daylight” even though this increases daylight by no more than a few minutes a day for a few days a year. Nevertheless, the regulatory process and restrictions were invented, and America has never looked back.
Running parallel to this, US Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover was paranoid of a 1917 soviet style revolution happening in America. His singular goal was to get the average American to financially invest in the country’s economic system to avoid being carted off to his death by revolutionaries. Hoover’s solution was home ownership, something traditionally held for wealthier citizens. If Hoover could get enough Americans tied to homes financed by banks, he would never need to defend the economic system to the masses, they would defend it themselves.
After the 1916 Zoning Resolution, Hoover was inspired by the regulations and realized something bigger was possible. He convened The National Conference of City Planning, a group of planners and business leaders who invented modern zoning in the United States, and named Edward Bassett — one of the key members of the 1916 Zoning Resolution in New York — president of the committee. Their model zoning framework was passed in congress as the Standard State Zoning Enabling Act in 1922 and single-family zoning was born.
With single family zoning, Hoover’s promise for protecting American homeowners’ assets could be realized by blanketing cities with an invisible cloak that restricted growth, development, and integration. When racial covenants were outlawed by the Supreme Court in the 1930s, city jurisdictions opted for zoning to do the same thing in disguise.
Zoning was not invented to separate manufacturing and residential uses
Planners will tell you zoning was invented to keep industrial uses away from residential ones, but this is dishonest. We were already separating those uses long before zoning came to the US and noxious uses like manufacturing and power plants were never the subject of the zoning discussions in New York City or at the National Conference.
Ironically, more homes have been placed near pollution today than were before, they’re just typically less affluent neighborhoods of diverse residents economically and/or racially. Modern planning inequitably places large multi-family buildings next to highways or other congested, polluted arterial roads.
The truth is zoning was invented as a defense mechanism for homeownership. It was a tool to ban integration and growth. Historically, jurisdictions either used park zoning or single-family zoning as tools to stop apartments or racially diverse neighborhood proposals. After World War II Hoover’s dream was realized as Americans opted to build generational wealth with suburban homes and city after city adopted their strict zoning code to protect them.
The Planning Department in New York is openly admitting their regulations are undesirable
The Equitable Life Building is 1.2 million square feet, but if built today it would be limited to 400,000 due to FAR limitations. It’s not alone in being a fugitive to the city’s code. The vast majority of what we see and cherish in Manhattan does not meet legal compliance of today’s zoning code. It is both hilarious and frustrating that the regulatory body on building rules resides in a property illegal to build today. Perhaps it’s arrogance or just cognitive dissonance, but I find the whole thing hypocritical.
It’s even more baffling a building so reprehensibly opposed would one day be landmarked. But time changes everything. People love the buildings that are there and don’t want anything to change. 60 years after the building was up, the nation designated it for preservation. Some have stated it was landmarked because of the back story and impact it had on planning, but the real truth is people love buildings once they’re up. The designation is quoted as calling it “elegant” and “one of the finest buildings of the era”. Once something is in place, people get used to it, learn to love it, and eventually defend it. Hoover knew this and that’s why he started his economic thesis.
Thankfully, the conversation has moved on zoning’s restrictions which are limiting a diversity of uses and housing types. People want zoning reforms and I hope they are delivered. Because right now, all these regulatory processes just seem like the veil of Voter I.D. Laws, things disguised as one thing, used for another, and framed in a manner that benefactors won’t ever want it changed.
The hypocrisy of planning can seem like an article in The Onion, but the truth of the matter is, the more you peel back the layers of zoning, like an onion, the more the whole thing stinks and makes you want to cry.