A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006. Now a Popeyes fast food restaurant on Google Maps.

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Entry from June 14, 2005
Contextual Zoning
"Contextual zoning" has been a buzzword in the city planning community for about two decades. It regulates new building to fit the existing buildings in the area.

O.K., Let's Give Up

IT is much easier to defeat something in New York City than to build something.
The process in New York is very tough, and that's why I am building major projects in cities like Chicago, Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Have you heard the term "contextual zoning" yet? It's a biggie in New York. So are the community boards, which like to make things close to impossible.

Contextual Zoning
Contextual zoning regulates height, placement and scale of new buildings so that they fit the character of the neighborhoods in which they are located. Contextual districts for lower-density areas, generally with the suffix A, B, X or 1 (e.g., R2X, R3-1 or R5B), are tailored to the particular characteristics of detached and semi-detached housing or rowhouse neighborhoods. Moderate- and higher-density contextual districts, identified by a letter suffix A, B or X (e.g., R6A, R8X or C4-6A), encourage the lower, bulkier, closer-to-the-sidewalk apartment buildings, at different densities, that define the streetscape in many of the city's neighborhoods. The Quality Housing Program is mandatory in moderate- and higher-density contextual districts.

September 18, 2003

Neighbors Think Outside the Block


DOWNSIZERS Protesting a new high rise in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, one of several neighborhoods where rezoning could be used as a preservation tool.

FOR A SMOOTHER PROFILE "Contextual" zoning — promoted by civic groups to keep a neighborhood's skyline and the character of its buildings relatively consistent — took effect this year in Park Slope, Brooklyn, above.

Adopted in 1989, lower density contextual zoning seeks to restore a meaningful difference between R3, R4 and R5 districts and ensure that new residential development in low-rise neighborhoods is compatible with existing housing. In order to achieve these goals, the zoning text incorporated a number of modifications that alter the bulk, density, configuration and parking requirements in lower density residential districts.

Why the Proposed Contextual Zoning is a Bad Idea

There is a proposal afoot to try to have Morningside Heights designated by the City as an area under Contextual Zoning. In essence, this would require short, blocky buildings with continuous street walls and restrict free-standing towers.

There are eight basic problems with Contextual Zoning:

1.Contextual Zoning would have prevented some of the neighborhood's best buildings, like Riverside Church, St. John the Divine, Notre Dame, and the Christian Science Church.

2.Contextual Zoning would not have prevented some of the neighborhood's worst buildings, like Carman Hall, Interchurch Center, Lerner Hall, the new part of St. Luke's Hospital, and the Center for Jewish Student Life.

3.Morningside Heights will eventually be designated an official Historic District, which carries with it stronger and more flexible protections which actually could have worked in 1. and 2. above.

4.Contextual Zoning can be rigid and restrictive and does not always make sense in individual cases.

5.Contextual zoning requires setbacks that are inconsistent with the existing fabric of the neighborhood.
6.Contextual Zoning as proposed would be floor-area neutral, meaning that it would not reduce the quantity of space that could be built here, only rearrange it. It is therefore not an effective tool for opposing gentrification north of 125th St.

7.Contextual Zoning will require a $75,000 planning study.

8. Criticism has come up about the Harlem Community Development Corporation, (HCDC) which is being proposed as the principal source of the $75,000 needed for the study to impose Contextual Zoning. It seems that this corporation is a corrupt patronage toy of Gov. Pataki and as such does not have a good reputation in the Upper Manhattan community. It may be unwise to get entangled in this web of Republican quid-pro-quos and suspect financial practices.

If you find yourself in agreement, please print out this poster (MSWord) and put it up in your building or elsewhere that people will see it.

Ian Fletcher
Webmaster, MorningsideHeights.net
Moderator, MHNET

13 May 1984, New York Times, "'Village' Zoning" by Jeanine Esposito and Harvey L. Slaton, pg. R12:
The Planning Department is accommodating a developer who has been acquiring properties in a mixed residential-industrial area just below the 14th Street meat market and wants to build luxury housing higher than the Village norm. Generic-contextual zoning is simply another euphemism for overriding communities.

3 March 1985, New York Times, "West Side Zoning" by Con Howe, pg. R8:
The article said the Special Lincoln Square District rezoning was specifically undertaken to encourage "contextual zoning," which requires specific streetwall heights and setbacks. In fact, the new zoning designations that are referred to as "contextual zoning" were applied to the area north of the district.

Posted by Barry Popik
Buildings/Housing/Parks • Tuesday, June 14, 2005 • Permalink

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