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Zoning in New York City

Zoning regulations can be tricky in the largest city in the United States. Charles Mulligan of Partner Engineering and Science, Inc., describes some of the zoning policies that are unique to New York City.

An Overview of New York City's Unique and Complex Zoning Regulations

In a city as old, large, and densely populated as New York, zoning regulations are myriad and complex. The Planning Department of the City of New York provides an interesting history of New York’s zoning resolution on their website, citing the introduction of skyscrapers and rapid influx of population as reasons behind New York City’s enactment of the first comprehensive zoning resolution in the United States in 1916.

Since then, the NYC zoning code has evolved and expanded to accommodate the development demands of the tenth largest city in the world. According to this 2016 article in the New York Times, forty percent of the buildings in Manhattan could not be built today because they do not meet current NYC zoning regulations. In 2017, the city passed an amendment to the zoning resolution, rezoning East Midtown Manhattan to encourage development in this business district that had stagnated due to restrictive zoning.

Today, New York City has several unique zoning laws you won’t find elsewhere:

  • NYC zoning regulations are set up like most cities, with residential, commercial, and industrial districts. Most cities have three or four residential districts which count for low density, medium density, and high density. In NYC each of these groups contains many subgroups. 
  • The City of New York has sky exposure plane regulations which are more complicated than a simple height or story restriction. These regulations take shadows into account, requiring specific setback amounts to limit the intrusion of shadows on pedestrian areas or roadways.
  • Air rights can be sold and entitled to surrounding properties to allow greater height than permissible in the zoning ordinance.
  • City of New York restricts dancing at most bar/restaurant establishments. In most cases, you must have special approval and a cabaret license to allow dancing. 

What about the rest of the state? NYC is home to about 40% of the population of the State of New York. Outside of NYC, many government Planning Departments are very small, with part-time employees. In fact, some municipalities in the State of New York still do not have zoning ordinances because their towns are more rural or agriculture-based, so there isn’t a significant need for city planning. Most towns or cities in New York State have very simplistic zoning ordinances, with three main zoning districts: residential, commercial, and industrial. In contrast, NYC has around 100.

As with other locations in the United States, a zoning report is an important part of due diligence for the purchase, development or redevelopment of commercial real estate in New York. If you’re developing commercial real estate in New York City, consider hiring a land use attorney. Between air rights, deed restrictions, and historic landmarks, it’s well worth the extra money.