View the Brooklyn Daily Eagle announcing the members of the newly formed City Planning Commission.
New York City has been a pioneer in the development of urban planning in the United States; the nation's first comprehensive zoning resolution was enacted by the city in 1916. But it was not until 20 years later that New Yorkers voted to approve a new City Charter that established the City Planning Commission and gave it the responsibility to prepare plans and to draft and approve amendments to the Zoning Resolution.
Shortly after the turn of the century, the drive to establish a permanent planning agency in New York City was led by two advocates of municipal reform, George McAneny and Edward M. Bassett. McAneny had been elected Manhattan Borough President in 1909; he was president of the City Club and chairman of its Committee on City Planning. Bassett, a lawyer and a former congressman, was appointed to the Public Service Commission in 1907 and played an important part in planning for the city's expanding subway system.
In 1912, at the urging of the Fifth Avenue Association, whose members were concerned about congestion and declining land values, McAneny submitted a report to the Board of Estimate, formally known as the Board of Estimate and Apportionment, calling for more extensive building controls. The board, a quasi-legislative body consisting of the Mayor, Borough Presidents, Comptroller and, what is known today as the City Council President, did not act on it.
One year later, however, the Board of Estimate appointed a Committee on City Planning to make recommendations on possible limitations on the heights of buildings and selected McAneny to be its chairman.
The Committee on City Planning issued its report in 1914 and recommended the creation of a permanent city planning agency. The appendix of the report contained the draft of a bill (passed by the state legislature later that year) which gave the Board of Estimate the power to regulate heights and uses of buildings.
Another committee, under Bassett's leadership, was appointed to gather data necessary to evolve a coherent plan of land use districting. This committee's report formed the basis for the landmark 1916 Zoning Resolution, which reflected borough and local interests (Bassett and McAneny had carefully crafted the resolution to win their support). The resolution regulated the heights of buildings and divided the city into districts by land use. However, no agency was created to administer the new zoning law. The Chief Engineer of the Board of Estimate advised the Board on zoning amendments.
In 1926, Mayor James J. Walker appointed a Committee on Plan and Survey to study planning in New York and to draft a bill that would create a planning agency. The committee was composed of distinguished New Yorkers including McAneny, Bassett, Herbert Lehman, and Nicholas Murray Butler. In 1928 the committee proposed the creation of a City Planning Commission with jurisdiction over the city's physical development. Bassett drafted an amendment to the City Charter intended to create a City Planning Commission. However, the bill died in the state legislature.
Business associations, the newspapers, the Real Estate Board, the East Side Chamber of Commerce, and influential New Yorkers continued to press for a planning body. Mayor Walker sponsored a bill to create a planning department-with power over zoning-headed by a single commissioner. Local Law No. 16 was signed by Mayor Walker on July 17, 1930, after it had passed the Board of Estimate by a slim majority.
However, the new agency was ineffective as it had no real authority. When the depression dictated budget cuts, the department was abolished on February 1, 1933 for reasons of economy.
When Fiorello H. LaGuardia became mayor in 1934, he promised to establish a new planning agency. A commission to revise the City Charter was formed in 1935, with proposed revisions subject to vote by the electorate, and the mayor had his opportunity.
Public hearings on the proposed new charter began in May, 1936. LaGuardia and Bassett spoke in favor of a planning body. Ironically, George McAneny said that a planning agency should be advisory, with no zoning authority. The planning commission was opposed by some elected officials and others, including the Bronx Board of Trade, the Bronx and Queens Chambers of Commerce, and various Staten Island groups. The planning body was endorsed by the Citizens Union, the Regional Plan Association, the City Club, the Merchants Association, and the League of Women Voters.
The struggle for and against the charter went on into the fall. The planning commission proposal remained intact but faded into the background as other segments of the new charter took center stage in the discussions. In November, New Yorkers voted to adopt the new City Charter by nearly 65% approval.
The establishment of the City Planning Commission provided the structure for comprehensive planning in New York City, replacing a haphazard planning and zoning system that functioned principally through the interaction of interest groups and political forces. For the first time New York had a professional agency with a single purpose: to serve the people of New York by planning for the entire city.
Mayor LaGuardia selected Adolph A. Berle to be the first chairman of the City Planning Commission. He was replaced several months later by Rexford Tugwell, formerly an adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Among the first group of commissioners was Lawrence Orton of the Regional Plan Association, who served for 31 years, the longest tenure of any commissioner.
As established by the 1936 Charter, the City Planning Commission had seven members, six appointed by the mayor with the chief engineer of the Board of Estimate serving ex-officio as the seventh member. To ensure the political autonomy of the commission, the six appointees—one designated by the mayor as chairman—were to serve eight-year overlapping terms. In that way, a majority of members could not be appointed during a mayor's single four-year term of office. The chief engineer of the Board of Estimate, a career civil servant, was not subject to appointment for a term.
The commission did not reach full strength until 1945 when Mayor LaGuardia appointed the sixth member. The stipulation that the chief engineer serve ex-officio was dropped when the Charter was revised in 1963 to require that all seven members of the commission be appointed by the mayor. The Charter amendment of 1975 added two requirements: that the City Council would approve by advice and consent the six commission members-other than the chairman-appointed for eight-year terms, and that the commission would consist of at least one resident from each borough of the city.
In the wake of the elimination of the Board of Estimate in 1989, a 1989 Charter amendment made effective in 1990 further altered the composition of the Commission by increasing the number of commissioners to thirteen: seven members appointed by the Mayor, including the Chair; one appointed by each Borough President; and one appointed by the Public Advocate. The Chair serves at the pleasure of the Mayor, while the other Commissioners are appointed to staggered five year terms. However, all members shall be chosen for their independence, integrity, and civic commitment, and the appointment of all members, other than the chair, is subject to the advice and consent of the City Council. This is the structure of today’s City Planning Commission, which reviews nearly 500 public and private applications a year, and has, since its establishment 75 years ago, reviewed more than 25,000 land use applications.