New York City’s zoning code turns 100 this year.
May 20, 2016 11:37 AM   Subscribe

Zoning is such a perfect example of power-play bureaucracy.

In the city I used to work in 95% of structures were non-conforming. What does that really mean?

It means you have to play political grab-ass with the table full of old white guys in order to build a frig'n dormer.
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 11:42 AM on May 20, 2016 [5 favorites]

Broadly speaking, zoning laws in the US were created to enforce existing segregationist covenants, once those became illegal/unfashionable. Over time, we've grown to enforce and defend those rules based on a faulty assumption that they were created to serve a legitimate purpose.

I recently ranted about this in another post on MeFi.

There's more than racism at play, but zoning is fantastically corrupt, is broadly supported by the population (but gets little attention), and has a pervasive impact on almost every aspect of our daily lives.
posted by schmod at 12:04 PM on May 20, 2016 [10 favorites]

It means you have to play political grab-ass with the table full of old white guys in order to build a frig'n dormer.

Live in Somerville, MA, I take it?

(No, in Somerville it's a slightly different variant of the problem: the city's given owners variances and exemptions for decades in order to encourage owners to do renovations and the like without expensive requirements kicking in. Better than letting those old triple deckers decay, right? So now the building code and zoning codes for the city are about as arcane as old medieval laws.)
posted by ocschwar at 12:12 PM on May 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

There's a great link in that story to this story about the sale of Mark Magowan's fabulous 7,000-square-foot apartment at 720 Park Avenue. Fun facts: Magowan is the grandson of Charles Merrill, co-founder of Merrill-Lynch, the cousin of poet and Ouija-enthusiast James Merrill, and the brother of poet and one-time lover of Nancy Ling Perry, Robin Magowan.

(Fun fact I didn't know: there's another brother named Merrill Lynch Magowan—an unfortunate moniker that reminds me of nothing so much as Faulkner's Montgomery Ward Snopes.)
posted by octobersurprise at 12:40 PM on May 20, 2016

Live in Somerville, MA, I take it?

posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 3:32 PM on May 20, 2016 [2 favorites]

Some developers have gone so far as to demolish all but the bottom quarter of their buildings, and then build up from there, allowing them to retain the old zoning for their plots so as not to sacrifice a single square foot.
There is car dealership here in town with a wall left standing on an old loading dock at the back of their lot. It looks really out of place and initially you wonder why they didn't tear it down with the rest of the building. However a little digging will reveal that the wall will allow a new structure at that location to be set right at the back of the lot instead of having a rear lot set back for parking.
posted by Mitheral at 5:04 PM on May 20, 2016 [4 favorites]

One of the buildings in red is 1 Morningside Drive. The reason cited is "other nonconforming issue." However, it was built only in 2008, as part of a deal with St. John the Divine to sell off its air rights. So I'm not understanding how it could not conform to "recent" building codes when it was just put up in the last decade.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 7:26 PM on May 20, 2016

They might have been non-conforming from day one via variance. A variance allows you to build the building but that doesn't make the building compliant.
posted by Mitheral at 10:59 PM on May 20, 2016 [2 favorites]

Zoning may be corrupt - often - and it may have partially unsavory roots, but till you've lived in a town with no zoning, you've never experienced how shittastic a town can look, how shoddy a new building can be and yet not fall down, and how utterly fuck-you developers can be to neighbors, the local government, the water and sewage system, the streets and flow of traffic, the air and soil, and to life itself.
posted by Mo Nickels at 6:01 AM on May 21, 2016 [3 favorites]

That's not a zoning issue, Mo. With zoning, you can build as shitty and nasty a building as you like, so long as its purpose is allowed for that zone.

With good BUILDING codes rather than zoning codes, you can use a building for whatever you like, so long as the building itself isn't a piece of crap.
posted by ocschwar at 6:50 AM on May 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

Tastes change. Not too long ago the whole modern "subdivision" project and garden city concepts were where it was at for future-topia. Not too long ago cities turned their backs on rivers, they were the sewers . Nowadays its all streetcar neighborhoods and walkability scores, re-purposed industrial areas now have condos with names like "Machine Works" in the same way that outer ring suburbs have names like "Willow Dale" for features obliterated by development. Currently there seems to be a bit of hysteria about wrongheaded zoning rules and obsession with the beautiful past being prevented from futurexistance by racist or anti-progressive zoning. I have to call BS as regards a city like NYC as pretty much development is all lawyers and consultants and green grease, you can build whatever you want regardless of the existing law as long as you have the juice. You can stop whatever you want as long as you have the juice.
posted by Pembquist at 9:43 AM on May 21, 2016

(No zoning laws at all lead to things like regularly happen in my neighboring county: someone decides to buy a residential property and opens a lumber mill, kennel, or large cattle operation. Now everyone who has lived there for ages gets to deal with the traffic, noise, and stink of a business. Whee. Zoning laws are often crap, but some very basic structure like "this district of existing houses is R-R" and "this district of traditionally-industrial stuff is M-1" can be very helpful. Yes these issues could also be solved by, say, a permitting office, but permitting rules are administrative and often change far more rapidly than property ownership.)
posted by introp at 10:03 AM on May 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

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