Architecturally a building setback is a building face that is recessed from the rest of the building. In zoning a setback is the distance a building or portion of a building must be recessed from a property line or other designated point of reference. Setback requirements vary based on zoning districts and specific site characteristics. NYC Zoning Setbacks are designed to allow for light to enter the streets and prevent over shadowing from tall buildings.
Origins of NYC Zoning Setbacks
It is said that the Equitable Building built in 1915 is responsible for the NYC Zoning Setback requirements. I think if you walk around lower Manhattan you will see many buildings that would make you want setback regulations. One distinct characteristic of the Lower Manhattan financial district is the narrow streets. You will notice if you walk around the financial district in NYC the streets are extremely narrow and the buildings are tall. This makes the streets very dark and dreary. You can barely see the sky or get any direct sunlight. The streets are constantly in shadow. This is why the 1916 Zoning Resolution created the requirement for setbacks. Zoning Setbacks would force buildings to push back from the street above a certain height allowing in light and air. One famous example of a building with setbacks would be the Empire State Building.
The current NYC Zoning Resolution is the 1961 Zoning resolution which requires setbacks in many situations and zoning districts.
How Do NYC Zoning Setbacks Work?
There are different ways to require setbacks in zoning. One way is to set a height at which a setback is required. This is called a base height. Another way setbacks can be implemented is through the sky exposure plane.
Base Height for Setbacks
A building base height is the maximum height at which a setback is required. In NYC Zoning buildings have a minimum and maximum base height. Setbacks must be used within that height range. Buildings that do not exceed the maximum base height do not need to have any setbacks. No setbacks are allowed below the minimum setback height.
Sky Exposure Plane For Setbacks
The sky exposure plane is an imaginary plane that restricts the volume of a building. With the exception of a few permitted obstructions a building cannot penetrate the sky exposure plane.
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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 15 years where he has designed renovations and new developments of various building types.