Zoning Variance Requirements in NYC

by | Last updated May 9, 2024 | NYC DOB, NYC Zoning, Property Development

A Zoning Variance is a special approval to develop a property in a manner that does not entirely conform with the applicable Zoning Regulations. In New York City, variances are filed with The Board of Standards and Appeals (BSA). Zoning Variances are typically issued when a property has a unique condition that causes a hardship on the owner’s ability to use or develop the property. In NYC, the unique condition cannot be created by the current owner. The NYC Zoning Resolution outlines the criteria to qualify for a zoning variance. 

I am Jorge Fontan, an architect in New York and owner of Fontan Architecture, a Manhattan-based architecture firm. At our office, we work on various project types, including developments and alterations that require Zoning Variances. In this post, I will discuss the procedure and requirements for a Zoning Variance application in NYC, using examples from projects where we successfully obtained Zoning Variances for our clients.


Unique Physical Condition

A property must have a unique physical condition to qualify for a zoning variance in NYC. For example, a narrow or shallow lot compared to the typical lots in the area would qualify for a variance.

We obtained a variance for a client who owned a narrow lot where the zoning regulations would require them to provide a side yard of eight feet on a twenty-one-foot wide lot. Because this lot was narrow for this type of residence, we applied for and received a zoning variance from the Board of Standards and Appeals.


Hardship Due to the Unique Condition

The unique physical condition has to cause some form of hardship for the owner. The hardship can be related to the use of the property or the ability to develop the property. In the example, I used, the Zoning Resolution required an eight-foot side yard on a twenty-one-foot wide property. This requirement would result in a thirteen-foot-wide house. We were able to convince the BSA that having to build a thirteen-foot-wide house was a hardship for our client. They agreed and issued us a variance. If you want to read more about this project, you can see another post we wrote about this Side Yard Zoning Variance.


Will Not Alter the Character of the Neighborhood 

You will not get a zoning variance approved if it results in altering the character of the neighborhood or creating any form of negative impact. Requesting a use that is unusual for the neighborhood or a bulk variance that will create a larger building than the rest of the block would be an example of negatively altering the neighborhood’s character.

We always look at the neighborhood to ensure that our projects conform to all the requirements for a zoning variance. Understanding and respecting the location’s context is critical to getting the application approved. Negatively impacting the neighborhood can be a deal breaker for a building bulk variance or use variance. 

We got a Floor Area Variance approved for a property in Williamsburg, Brooklyn where the clients wanted to build a new townhouse on an empty lot. The lot was very small and would result in a small house relative to the neighborhood. We requested a variance to build a larger house, which the Board of Standards and Appeals approved. We illustrated to the BSA that the house would be consistent with many other homes in the neighborhood regarding its floor area. The Board agreed and approved our application. You can see another post if you want to read more about that Floor Area Zoning Variance


Hardship or Unique Condition Not Created By Owner

To qualify for a zoning variance, the hardship and unique condition cannot have been caused by the owner. For example, suppose the property is abnormally small, and you need a variance to build on it due to its size. In that case, you will only qualify for the variance if you did not create the small lot. If you purchased the lot as is that would be acceptable. If you had owned a lot and then subdivided it creating a small zoning lot then you would not qualify for the variance because you created the unique condition.


Minimum Variance Necessary

The NYC Zoning Resolution states that the Board of Standards and Appeals should grant the minimum variance necessary to provide relief. Having been through the BSA review process multiple times, I can assure you they take this seriously. It is best to propose something reasonable instead of going overboard. Our clients often want to ask for way more than they can get, and the BSA can require you to redesign the entire development before they approve it. 

If you would like to learn more about the process and procedures for obtaining a Zoning Variance in New York City, you can read our post on How to Get a Zoning Variance in NYC.


Thank You for reading our blog post on the Criteria for a Zoning Variance in NYC.

We wish you the best of luck with your project. If you want to discuss your zoning variance with an architect you can contact us directly. Feel free to leave questions or comments below.


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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.