Tuesday, November 17, 2009


There's an article in Sunday's New York Times about a Department of Sanitation garage being planned in what is now called Hudson Square – a formerly industrial neighborhood that is now largely residential and commercial. I'm less interested, for the purpose of this post, in the celebrity opponents to the garage – and even in the opposition – than in this excerpt:
The area east of the garage, sometimes called the South Village or West SoHo but increasingly known as Hudson Square, was once chockablock with printing and storage firms. In 2003, the city recognized its increasingly residential character by rezoning the area to accommodate dwellings.
This is a wonderful demonstration of the nature of zoning. In my view, zoning is largely a reactive action, a response, if not to existing conditions, then at least to a trend toward new conditions. The greatest point of leverage a city government has in effecting change – in being proactive – is in its public realm; and the city agency with the most power over the public realm is the department of transportation. (In the case of New York City, the MTA, which operates the subway and bus systems, also affects the character of the city.) Of course, market pressures and cultural trends play huge roles, but in terms of the public sector's control over the landscape, zoning's reputation is out of keeping with the reality. Perhaps the one major impact a city planning department has on the public realm is in its off-street parking policies, and these are determined in the zoning code.

I'm reading a wonderful book about planning and cities by Alex Marshall: How Cities Work: Suburbs, Sprawl, and the Roads Not Taken. Marshall argues that cities are built on three legs: politics, economics, and transportation. Zoning is secondary, at best. "The system of zoning and land-use laws that consumes so much time and newsprint in most cities can almost be seen as an elaborate ruse to hide the real decisions being made by state departments of transportation."

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