In the past I've written about the effects of the design of New York's grid plan and particularly its division of blocks into lots of 25' by 100', dimensions that were, in the mid-19th century, incompatible with the construction of well-lit or ventilated apartment buildings. A 2003 paper published by the Cato Journal echoes these observations, but focuses on a less well-remembered aspect of New York's planning history: the building height act of 1885.
Although this law was overshadowed by the Tenement House Act of 1901 and even more so by the Zoning Resolution of 1916, the 1885 act established a precedent on building heights that would persist until the 1961 amendments to the New York zoning code and beyond. The law, simple enough, capped building heights at 70 feet on narrower streets and 80 feet on the wide avenues – limits comparable to those found in European cities of the time – yet, unlike the laws of those cities, the New York ordinance only restricted residential buildings, leaving commercial structures, and hotels, unregulated.
The effects of this selective restriction are described:
"First, economic rents accrued immediately to owners of existing tall residential buildings due to the restriction of potential competition from the new buildings that would not now be built. …
"Second, developers of apartment buildings found themselves unable to compete with commercial-building interests for Manhattan building lots offering appeal either as residential or commercial sites. Prior to 1885, large apartment buildings had been constructed that not only competed with contemporary office buildings in their ground coverage but exceeded them in height. This era now ended. …
"Finally, height restrictions helped prop up the tenement system by inhibiting the development of the tall apartment building as an indirect— and over time a direct—competitor. By preventing the development of tall residential buildings in Manhattan, height restrictions derailed a natural market process that would have lowered rents and increased quality beginning with the middle-class portion of the tenement market."
Although the law did not impose Euclidean zoning on the city, in effect the law zoned all buildings over the height limit as commercial, since these could no longer be converted to residential use. In doing so, it anticipated the explicit zoning by use in the 1916 act.
The law also had long term implications for the arrangement of jobs and residences. The observation that apartment buildings taller and larger than office buildings were beginning to appear in the city makes sense when we consider that office buildings have many more workers, per square foot, than apartment buildings have residents. To fill the new office towers by pedestrian traffic would have required an even greater number of nearby residential towers. With these prohibited, it would fall to mass transit to link the increasingly tall office buildings of lower Manhattan and Midtown with the residents of the six and seven story residential buildings spreading northwards up the island.
The strict height limits of the 1885 law were moderated somewhat in 1897, when New York moved to permit residential buildings of up to 12 stories on all streets. This arrangement quickly gave way, in 1901, to the familiar "1 and 1/2" height formula, which restricted apartment buildings to the width of the adjacent street plus 50 percent. It was this limit which was incorporated into the 1916 zoning resolution for residential areas, and which persisted for the most part until 1961, severely depressing the market for apartment construction in the city – with the exception of the avenues, where the formula yielded buildings of profitable dimensions (the claim of New York's planning department that the 1916 code could have accommodated 55 million seems questionable to say the least).
Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that the city's ultimate remedy for the so-called tenement problem – the form of the tenements and their persistence a direct consequence of city planning decisions dating back to 1811 – was to demolish tenement areas and replace them with high-rise apartments of the sort that the city had barred the private sector from building in the critical years from 1885 to 1930. As New York reexamines its zoning code, will the city pause to consider its 200 years of planning history candidly and critically to see what lessons might be learned?
Blocks of New York
Living Space, Working Space and Centralization
Height Limits: The Forgotten Debates