Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Questions for Curatorial: High and Low

Curatorial Director Dave answers your questions. To submit a question, leave it in the comments or on our Facebook page.

Were there ever height regulations placed on buildings in New York City, especially tenements on the Lower East Side?

Height regulations were first placed on buildings in New York City by the 1916 Zoning Resolution. As the first comprehensive effort at regulating the height, area, and use of structures built in an urban environment, the resolution proved influential to other U.S. cities that enacted zoning legislation after 1916.

While the 1916 Zoning Regulation was in a sense formulated as a reaction to the ways in which a new building form, the “skyscraper,” blocked sunlight to the surrounding streets (resulting in the setback, pyramid-style designs typical of New York City high-rises,) it applied to the entire city. Neighborhoods such as the Lower East Side were divided into height districts where limitations were formulated in relation to the width of the street. The Lower East Side was deemed a 1½ times district, meaning that no building was to be erected to a height in excess of 1½ times the width of the street. However, for each foot that the building or a portion of it was set back from the street line, three feet could be added to the height limit of the structure.

Although many of the tenements on the Lower East Side were erected prior to 1916, the height of those constructed after were subject to the limitations imposed by the 1916 Zoning Resolution.


  1. Thanks for the great post! I'm curious to know how tall this meant a building could actually be in New York at this time?

    There was a similar concern about height restrictions during the same period in Sydney, Australia. Prompted by the construction of the 12-storey 170ft story 'skyscraper' Culwulla chambers, the council imposed a height restriction of 150 feet in 1912. Council documents & newspaper from this period indicate Sydney's town planners and politicians were looking to the influences of overseas cities, including New York, as the shining examples of the modern city, and as worthy of emulation. The restriction wasn't lifted here however until the late 1950s!

  2. Hi Nicole,

    So does Sydney's downtown reflect the early 20th cen. regulations, or have skyscrapers taken over?

    New York City’s 1916 zoning resolution was at least as concerned about the overall effects of building bulk and massing as it was about height alone. The regulations set a range of height limits and set-back guidelines for various districts and types of sites, but there was no absolute ceiling. In fact, the rules governing towers allowed for skyscrapers of unlimited height, as long as the footprint of the tower section was no larger than 25% of the area of the underlying lot. These regulations played a major role in shaping such iconic skyscrapers as the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings.

    - Chris


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