Floor Area Zoning Variance in NYC

by | Last updated Mar 20, 2024 | General Architecture, NYC Zoning, Property Development

The New York City Zoning Resolution sets regulations for developing a property, from a new building to a small home addition. These rules can sometimes be burdensome and result in unnecessary challenges for the owner. NYC has a system known as a Zoning Variance, where you can request special authorization to develop a property in contradiction with a specific zoning regulation.


Zoning Variance

A zoning Variance is a discretionary action that can grant special approval to develop or use a property in a manner that does not fully comply with the Zoning Resolution. In New York City, these applications are reviewed by the Board of Standards and Appeals after the NYC Department of Buildings disapproves the application. 

A Zoning Variance relieves a specific zoning regulation for a specified extent of noncompliance. As architects, we submit drawings illustrating the exact proposed development. The BSA may request a redesign to limit the extent of the variance, or they may approve it as proposed. Either way, it is at their discretion to determine the outcome.

I am Jorge Fontan, an architect in New York and owner of Fontan Architecture, a NYC-based architecture firm. At our office, we work on various project types, including applications for Zoning Variances. In this post, I will review a Floor Area Zoning Variance we obtained for a client.


Zoning Hardship

One of the requirements for a Zoning Variance is that there must be a hardship. In the example below, the zoning regulation in question created a hardship, making the property difficult to build on.

Our client purchased a property that was 21 feet wide and approximately forty feet deep. They wanted to build a new home on this property. The Zoning Resolution sets a Floor Area Ratio (FAR), which is a formula that regulates the square footage of the proposed home relative to the lot area. In this case, the FAR was going to result in a house that was quite small and undersized for the neighborhood due to the small lot.

We have another post you can see if you want to learn more about Floor Area Ratio.

21 x 40 Small Zoning Lot

21 x 40 Small Zoning Lot


This property is relatively small, much smaller than the neighboring lots. Having a small lot like this would result in a lower floor area for the house than the typical home in this area. We used this fact to request additional floor area beyond the allowable FAR. Below is a 3D diagram of the proposed development without the zoning variance.

As of Right Small Lot Development

As of Right Small Lot Development


We designed a house that would be larger than what the zoning would allow. We presented this to the Board of Standards and Appeals and after some effort we obtained approval from BSA for the Zoning Variance.

Floor Area Zoning Variance

Floor Area Zoning Variance


Minimum Variance Necessary

The Zoning Resolution outlines multiple requirements for a Zoning Variance besides hardship. During our review process at BSA, the board brought up a concern for “Minimum Variance Necessary,” another requirement for a Variance. They suggested we make a few design tweaks. This type of back-and-forth is common. We did make some tweaks to the plans, and they eventually approved it.


Approved Zoning Variance

The BSA approved our Variance application and granted us the zoning variance for the higher floor area. Obtaining the floor area variance was a great victory for this property as the resulting house would have been relatively small.
The final approved development was a four-story house one thousand square feet over the Zoning FAR.
Below is an image of the plans approved by the Board of Standards and Appeals for our granted Zoning Variance.

Approved Floor Area Zoning Variance

Approved Floor Area Zoning Variance


Zoning Variances

The most important thing I can tell you about a zoning variance is that there is no guarantee the application will be approved. These requests are referred to as “discretionary actions” because it is at the board’s discretion whether or not to approve the application.

We have another post discussing a Side Yard Zoning Variance in NYC if you want to see another example of one of our approved BSA Variances.


Thank You for Reading Our Blog Post on Obtaining a Floor Area, FAR Zoning Variance in NYC. 

I hope this was helpful. If you would like to speak with an architect about a potential project, you can contact us at Fontan Architecture directly.


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Jorge Fontan

Jorge Fontan

This post was written by Jorge Fontan AIA a Registered Architect and owner of New York City architecture firm Fontan Architecture. Jorge Fontan has earned 3 degrees in the study of architecture including two degrees from the City University of New York and a Masters Degree in Advanced Architectural Design from Columbia University. Jorge has a background in construction and has been practicing architecture for 20 years where he has designed renovations and new developments of various building types.