New York City has very convoluted, sometimes draconian, Zoning Laws. As a massive city it is understandable that we would have extensive regulations on property development, but in my opinion some parts of the NYC Zoning Resolution may go a little too far. I am an architect in New York and owner of Fontan Architecture, an architecture firm based in Manhattan. This post will be based on my experience in NYC and my opinions on the NYC Zoning Resolution.
The following will be a list of 5 zoning laws that are most likely to ruin your chances of developing your property the way you want to develop it. Before we start, I will share that I am pro development. I am an architect, and thereby have an obvious bias that I do not want to ignore in this situation. This post is based on my experience as an architect and on my opinions on the merit of these specific zoning laws.
While zoning is not stupid by nature, there are certainly cases where NYC could loosen their grip a little bit.
Small Zoning Lots
Small Zoning Lots have the great honor of being the Number 1 Stupidest Zoning Law in New York City. Every residential zoning district in New York has a minimum lot size requirement. If you have a property that is under this minimum, you will not be able to develop more than 2 families on the property, even if you are in a medium or high density multifamily residential zoning district.
Minimum Lot Size: Minimum Lot Sizes are established by the zoning resolution for residential zoning districts. Lots that are under the minimum lot size will be considered “Small Zoning Lots”. A small zoning lot cannot be developed with more than two dwelling units. We have another post with more information if you want to read about Minimum Lot Size and Small Zoning Lots.
Lets look at an example of a small zoning lot. If you have a property that is 16 x 100 you will be a small zoning lot in any district. Lets call it an R8B Zoning District. R8B has an FAR of 4. Lets do the Math:
16 x 100 = 1,600 Square feet
1,600 x 4 = 6,400 square feet
You can read a blog post I wrote explaining FAR if you did not follow the previous calculation: Floor Area Ratio Calculations
You could “As of Right” develop this property with a 6,400 square foot building, but it can only be a maximum of 2 families. If it is on a corner lot and you want to build 4 stories, you could do one or two apartments per floor. With a result of 4 – 8 apartments. But YOU CAN’T! Because of your small zoning lot you can only build 1 or 2 families. You can develop a 4 story building of 6,400 square feet on a corner lot for 2 families only. Imagine if this was an R10 zoning district with an FAR of 10. That would be 16,000 square foot building for one or two families, no option for multifamily. Ridiculous!
I constantly have to break peoples hearts on this one. People call me to tell me they have a property in their family and they want to build an addition or tear down and do a rebuild with these small buildings, and I have to break the bad news for them.
If you plan to build a high rise building the number one most likely zoning regulation that will ruin your day is by far the “Sliver Law.” I call this law the “project killer.” The Sliver law is a height restriction on buildings or portions of buildings less than 45 feet wide. It applies to many zoning districts, but not all.
Sliver Law: The Sliver law essentially states that a building under 45 feet wide can not be taller than the width of the street. Alternatively, if you are on a narrow street, you can build to the height of the shorter of the two abutting buildings to the sides of your property. If you are on a wide street you can build to the height of the taller of the two buildings. This is an over simplified explanation, but I have another post on the Sliver Law if you want more detail.
I get calls from people all the time that want to build a ten story or taller building in Manhattan. I have to tell them the bad news: they can’t, because of this height restriction. If you are on a street that is, let’s say, 65 foot wide and your property is in an R10 zoning district, you would otherwise be able to develop a building well over 12 stories. The sliver law will limit you to 6 stories because you can only go to a height of 65 feet. Your building will literally be half (or less than half) the height it could otherwise be without this law. That is why the Sliver Law is at the top of my list as the Number 2 Project Killing Zoning Law in NYC. Congratulations Sliver Law: you suck!
8 Foot Separation Between Residences
In certain zoning districts there is a requirement for an 8 foot separation between your building and your neighbor. This is especially ridiculous in a zoning district such as R5D where, in certain cases, side yards are not required. It is especially ridiculous when you want to build an addition to a house and the zoning code will make you step it in. Yes: if your house is 6 feet away from the neighbor and you want to add a second story, the new story may have to step in and be 8 feet away. This is absolutely ridiculous.
8 Foot Separation: In R3-1, R3-2, R4, R4-1, R4B, & R5 zoning districts buildings with residences must be 8 feet apartment on adjacent zoning districts. In cases where buildings may abut they can be zero feet apart but not between zero and eight.
On properties that are 20 feet wide this law is a major problem. I have had many people that want to build a house but choose not to purchase a property because of this project impeding zoning law.
Manhattan Core Parking Is Not All Of Manhattan
This next one is more than a bit annoying. Parking is waived in the “Manhattan Core” meaning you are not required to provide any parking for property developments in the Manhattan Core. The Manhattan Core, however, is not all of Manhattan.
The Manhattan Core: The Manhattan Core is the areas of Manhattan in Community Districts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8. This works out to be most of Manhattan, excluding the upper portion starting around Harlem.
If you are developing a building on the Upper West Side you do not need to provide parking, but if you are planning a development in Harlem, you do. I am happy to admit my own bias on this one as I am very pro public transportation and anti driving in NYC. However, it is ridiculous to me that Harlem and Washington Heights must have parking but the rest of Manhattan does not.
Height Factor Zoning
Height factor zoning is convoluted and weird. The biggest problem is that I get calls from people in R6 zoning districts telling me they want to develop a property with an FAR of 2.43 and I have to tell them (in most cases) that they cannot. This happens all the time and it is very frustrating to me and to the potential developers / property owners.
Height Factor Zoning: Height Factor is complicated and I will not spend time getting into the details, but we have another post if you want to read more about Height Factor Zoning.
In height factor zoning the Floor Areas Ratio, or FAR, is linked to the building Height and to the building Open Space Ratio. So if you change one, the other two change with it. This means the taller the building, the higher the FAR. This may not seem like a big deal, but it becomes an issue in many cases.
In an R6 zoning district you will usually develop a 4 or 5 story building (6 in some cases). In height factor zoning you will have a maximum FAR of 2.43 for R6, but this means you must develop a 13 story building. 25 feet by 100 is a very common lot size. So let’s work this out.
25 x 100 = 2,500 square foot lot
2,500 x 2.43 = 6,075 square feet. You can develop a 6,075 square foot 13 story building.
6,075 / 13 = 467 square feet. This means each floor is 467 square feet per floor.
Let’s be clear; this 467 square feet includes: Elevator (required), 2 stairs (required), and thickness of exterior walls. There would literally be nothing left. In fact the exterior walls, 2 stairs, and elevator is going to be over 467 square feet. It is unrealistic to develop an R6 property with an FAR of 2.43 unless the property is large, and has a lot of square footage to deal with.
How These Laws Hurt The Smaller Land Owners More Than Large Developers
I would like to point out that these laws all hurt smaller developers more than they hurt larger developers. That is not to say they do not hurt larger developers, but these are all problems that are easier to resolve with greater financial resources. I will make a point on each one of these laws to explain how larger development firms are going have greater ability to get past these, and how smaller land owners with limited financing will have more struggle.
Dealing With The Sliver Law
The easiest way to get around the sliver law is to purchase the property next door, demolish the building, and put lots together to develop one larger building. This is called an Assemblage or Real Estate Assemblage. This will be much easier for a large well financed real estate developer than for the little guy or lady that may be putting their entire family’s assets into this development.
I have a client who hired me earlier this year to plan an assemblage of around 10 properties. On their own, every single one would have the problem of Sliver Law. Together the client can build one very large development. He is planning this assemblage to take five to ten years to acquire all the properties. This is just not possible for a first time developer or a smaller developer.
A Real Estate Assemblage is a risky endeavor that takes a lot of time and a great deal of financing, That is why the Sliver Law will impact the little guy or lady more than the big developers. Not to mention there are people who purchase these properties without even knowing about the Sliver Law and do not find out until after the purchase. That is why the professional developers hire an architect like me to provide a Zoning Analysis before they put an offer to purchase land.
The problem With Small Zoning Lots
Small zoning lots have the same solution as the Sliver Law. The easiest way to get around it is to buy the neighbor’s property and put the two together. A zoning lot merger or Air Rights Deal can also be used to get around this problem but once again easier for the big developers than for the little ones.
As I already said an assemblage like this is much more realistic for big developers than for small ones. Additionally when I encounter this small zoning lot problem it is often people who have had the property in the family for years and just now want to develop it.
Where The 8 Foot Separation Applies
The 8 foot separation applies in zoning districts that are not going to be as desirable to large developers. Only individuals looking to build a house or a small building will ever have to deal with this law. It does not apply to any zoning districts in Manhattan, or any high density zoning districts.
Parking Required in Upper Manhattan But Not South of Harlem
Upper Manhattan requires parking, while the rest of Manhattan does not. If you want to build on the Upper West Side, you have zero parking requirements. If you want to build in Harlem or Washington Heights, you may have to provide parking. The parking waiver generally applies to areas with higher property value and more favorable zoning districts.
Height Factor Zoning Problems
The Height Factor Zoning issue will always be a bigger problem on a smaller property. It will also be a bigger issue in the smaller zoning districts. Height Factor for R8, for example, is easier to manage than in R6. R6 is more common in the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn. It is not as much of a problem in Manhattan.
This is another problem that can be dealt with through merging lots in an assemblage. It is also less of a problem in the more favorable zoning districts, since the proportions change as you go up the list of zoning districts. Height Factor doesn’t exist in R10 areas, such as on Park Avenue.
One way to deal with a zoning problem is to apply for a Zoning Variance. This is a special approval that is given on a case by case basis for a development that proves certain qualification for hardship. This process can easily take a year. It will also require additional architectural fees, as well as legal fees.
Not everyone can pay top dollar for a zoning lawyer who will be billing you for the next 1 to 2 years. The wait time alone will be difficult for small developers to handle losing money on the property while held up in approvals. This is especially true considering that there is always a risk of being voted down and the process being a waste.
This process is much easier for large developers, who can afford to take a loss for a few years. They are also more likely to be able to pay the extra legal and architectural fees. For a small property owner or first time developer, this will be a very expensive and daunting undertaking. Often it feels easier to just want to walk away rather than roll the dice.
Learn more about the process and requirements for Obtaining a Zoning Variance in NYC.
Unnecessarily Strict Zoning Codes in NYC
This post is just my opinion on the problems posed by these zoning rules. I do not intend to disparage anyone at the Department of City Planning, Department of Buildings, Board of Standards and Appeals, or any individual working for the City of New York. I am merely questioning the merit of the code, not the individuals working in any capacity at the NYC Agencies having Jurisdiction on Zoning.
As an architect I study property development and zoning, but New York City Zoning is very complicated. This article is only meant to review these basic Zoning Codes as a general introduction. This analysis does not assume to cover every possible issue, but provides a general overview of the zoning codes. This post is not a substitution for the NYC Zoning Resolution or any other applicable Codes or Regulations.
Thank You for reading our Blog Post on the Worst Zoning Codes in NYC.
I hope this was helpful. You can leave questions or comments below. If you want to discuss a specific project with an architect you can contact us directly.
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.