NYC Resources 311 Office of the Mayor
Flickr Flickr
Follow @NYCPlanning on Twitter Twitter
City Planning:


Take me to...
Commission Meetings
Commission Reports
Census FactFinder
LUCATS - Land Use
Application Tracking
ZoLa - Zoning and Land Use Application
Community Portal
Waterfront Access Map
Zoning Map Finder
Map & Bookstore
Job Opportunities
Press Releases
DCP Site Map
Contact DCP


Click Once to Submit Query


Translate this page
Products > Publications Printer Friendly Version
Unified Bulk Program, a report proposing sweeping reform of the city's zoning regulations governing the size and shape of buildings, 1999. ($5.00)

Executive Summary

The Unified Bulk Program is a sweeping reform of the city’s Zoning Resolution designed to replace confusing, anachronistic and often contradictory regulations with rules that are intelligible, practical and consistent. It seeks to uphold values of urban form, streetscape, neighborhood character and scale, while also assuring that New York City is able to grow and develop the housing, commercial space and community facilities that its economy and populace require.

The goal of the new text is to establish reasonable parameters for new development that give communities, developers and regulators a clear sense of what is and is not allowed in a given district, while allowing appropriate flexibility in the design of individual buildings. The numerous loopholes and interpretive gymnastics yielded by the present zoning will be eliminated. A public review and approval process will allow for sufficient flexibility to address unique conditions and allow for architectural innovation.

Issues with the Current Zoning
The current zoning generally sets appropriate controls on the amount of floor area that can be built, but the rules governing building height and massing reflect several competing visions of the city's development, often applied simultaneously in the same zoning districts. This confusing situation has developed over the years, as the City Planning Commission has repeatedly adopted amendments to limit or provide alternatives to the "tower-in-the-park" prototype underlying the 1961 Zoning Resolution. Tower-in-the-park zoning encourages the construction of tall buildings set back from the street, by allowing greater height and more floor area in return for the provision of open space. The resulting buildings have been subject to widespread criticism as anti-urban and disruptive of the dominant form and scale of most of the city's neighborhoods that were built largely under the original 1916 Zoning Resolution.

Rather than eliminating tower-in-the-park zoning and imposing height limits to address the problem of out-of-scale buildings, the Commission has, over the years, taken a less direct approach, encumbering the 1961 Resolution with limited height districts, contextual districts, tower-on-a-base provisions, infill zoning and special districts, among other innovations. While generated with the best intentions, these zoning reforms have in the aggregate produced an unduly complex, incoherent and unpredictable set of regulations. Only experts understand the Zoning Resolution, and they often disagree on its meaning. The average citizen or property owner has little hope of determining how a particular parcel of land may be developed.

Not surprisingly, such zoning periodically yields unexpected and undesirable results in the form of buildings that are so big they violate the character of the neighborhoods around them. A number of specific features of the existing zoning contribute to this problem:

  • Zoning lot mergers are critical to the successful functioning of the zoning. They enable developers to assemble small lots into the larger merged lots needed to build efficient, economical new buildings. The mergers also provide an incentive to preserve small existing buildings that are not built to the full permitted floor area, by enabling the transfer of the unused floor area from the site of a small existing building to the development site. Additional controls must be placed on zoning lot mergers, however, to avoid the transfer of excessive amounts of floor area to a development site from the already developed portion of a merged zoning lot. Transfers of floor area that go too far have produced buildings out-of-scale with their neighbors.

  • Many development sites straddle zoning districts. The rules governing the development of these "split lots" are confusing and too permissive. As a result, split lots have provided an excuse for erasing the distinctions between different zoning districts, transferring inappropriately large amounts of floor area and producing oversized buildings.

  • Many public spaces provided for in the Zoning Resolution have been successful, but floor area bonuses for residential plazas and certain other public spaces have too often produced larger buildings without providing meaningful public benefits.

  • New commercial buildings contain increasingly sophisticated technology. Much of the space occupied by this equipment is treated as "mechanical space" and is deducted from the zoning floor area of a building under the existing zoning. In some cases, these deductions have amounted to more than a quarter of a building’s floor space and so have enabled a building to become much larger than is contemplated in the zoning. It is certainly desirable for new buildings to use the new technology and appropriate that a reasonable amount of mechanical space be deducted from floor area calculations, but these deductions should not become so large that they subvert the bulk provisions of the zoning.

  • Contextual rules in some low-density districts apply to residences, but not to community facilities and commercial buildings. This reflects the fact that these nonresidential buildings require more bulk to fulfill their programmatic requirements. Zoning should recognize these differences in shape and size, but also place reasonable limits on their impact on surrounding communities.

The realization of some of the less appealing possibilities inherent in the 1961 zoning appears with greater frequency now, because market conditions are more favorable than in most of the preceding 40 years and good development sites are in ever shorter supply. With each successive boom in the city’s real estate economy, developers use the opportunities that remain in the 1961 zoning to build taller and bigger buildings. Now more than ever, reforms are needed to rebalance the zoning regulation and development economics.

The goal of the Unified Bulk Program is to produce zoning consistent with the following underlying principles:

  • The Zoning Resolution should contain the simplest regulations compatible with the city's planning objectives.

  • Height and setback controls should be designed to prevent new buildings from disrupting the prevailing character of communities in ways that are not anticipated in the zoning. In the highest-density areas with post-1961 towers, outside the central business districts, towers should be permitted, but should not continue to rise to ever-greater heights.

  • Each zoning district, outside designated central business districts, should have a height limit to provide certainty for residents, property owners and developers that future development will not exceed clearly defined limits. The height limits, together with setback controls, must provide effective caps on as-of-right building size that cannot be undermined by zoning lot mergers, deductions of mechanical space from floor area and other means. Development proposals that seek to exceed these limits should be subject to public review.

  • The new zoning should not impede development of the housing, commercial buildings and community facilities needed to accommodate the people living and working in the city. Specifically, the new zoning should accommodate the least costly building types at different densities, consistent with the city's planning objectives, particularly in low-density and medium-density districts where development is highly sensitive to costs.

  • Current zoning density and floor area ratio standards are generally appropriate to meet the demand created by the city's population and employment.

Unified Bulk Program
The Unified Bulk Program is a sweeping set of changes to the bulk provisions of the Zoning Resolution. Below is a summary of the key elements of the program.

Height and Setback Envelopes. The proposed height limits and setback rules would replace the multiple alternative envelopes in the existing zoning with one or two simple building envelopes for each zoning district. The envelopes are designed to be flexible enough that all the permitted floor area could be used on a typical lot to produce a variety of designs consistent with the typical scale of development in the zoning district. They would constrain the transfer of unused development rights from existing buildings to a development site. They would eliminate the complex system of sky exposure planes, height factors and open space ratios designed to produce tower-in-the-park development, as well as several other bulk provisions adopted as an antidote to tower-in-the-park development. The Unified Bulk Program would not apply in the Special Midtown or Lower Manhattan Districts. Downtown Brooklyn, the Court Square Subdistrict and eventually other portions of Long Island City would have height limits appropriate for downtown business centers. Contextual zoning districts would not be changed.

In medium-density and high-density districts (R6 to R10 and equivalents), the proposed building envelope would permit a contextual building that would hold the streetwall or a somewhat taller building set back from the street. Each district would have a height limit lower than what can be achieved under the existing zoning. These bulk controls would preclude the type of out-of-scale building, allowed under the existing zoning, which conflicts with the character of the surrounding district. For residential buildings, maximum and minimum heights for a contextual building's base and setback requirements above the base (derived from the Optional Quality Housing standards) are designed to provide streetwall continuity and a scale that corresponds generally to the built form typical of the zoning district. In high-density districts (R9, R10 and equivalents), all residential buildings using the taller envelope would be required to comply with revised tower-on-a-base regulations, requiring that buildings hold the streetwall and setback above a base. Tower-on-a-base rules would, for the first time, apply on narrow streets and would be modified to provide greater design flexibility without jeopardizing the objectives of limiting height, constraining zoning lot mergers and establishing a streetwall.

A similar height and setback system would be established for non-residential development in low-density districts (R1 to R5 and equivalent districts). Commercial, community facility and manufacturing buildings, where permitted, would be subject to district height limits that would preserve the characteristic low scale of these areas at the street line, but provide greater flexibility on large sites where taller buildings could be constructed to preserve open space or to integrate new development with existing low-rise buildings. Residential buildings in the lowest-density districts (R1 and R2) would be subject to a contextual envelope to replace the obsolete 1961 height and setback rules. These provisions are not needed in R3 to R5 districts, where residential buildings are already limited to a contextual envelope.

In the highest-density manufacturing districts (M1-6), no towers or plazas would be permitted, because these districts are dominated by large bulky pre-war loft buildings that hold the street wall and do not have towers. The one exception to this effort to maintain the established built form of these loft districts will be those M1-6 districts close to the Midtown Manhattan core where loft buildings are already mixed with office towers.

Split Lots and Zoning Lot Mergers. The rules governing split lots would be tightened and simplified to ensure greater predictability in what may be developed and to assure that split lots are not used as an excuse for ignoring the distinctions between zoning districts. Restrictions on the transfer of bulk across a district boundary would be relaxed only where comparable districts have the same floor area, height, setback and bulk controls. To remove any ambiguity on the issue of which districts are comparable, the zoning would include a definitive list of the comparable districts. This change will prevent inappropriate shifts of floor area between districts.

The height limits would constrain future zoning lot mergers, limiting excessive transfers of floor area by controlling the size and shape of what can be built. In addition, except in high-density commercial districts (C4 to C6), all residential developments using the tower envelope would have a minimum tower lot coverage of 33%. This requirement will prevent the massing of development rights from a large merged zoning lot into a tower on a small portion of the lot, by requiring that the tower occupy at least 33% of the entire zoning lot.

Density Controls. A single set of dwelling unit limits based on the amount of permitted floor area in a residential building would replace the more complicated existing density controls, based on zoning room counts in some districts and numbers of dwelling units in other districts.

Bonuses for Public Space. Most public spaces provided for in the Zoning Resolution have produced tangible public benefits, but some have been found over the years to be of limited use. As-of-right bonuses for residential plazas and for other public open spaces that have not produced significant public benefits would be eliminated. Bonuses for residential plazas in high-density commercial districts (C4 to C6) would be allowed by special permit. Bonuses for commercial and community facility plazas, which are of greater value because of the more public nature of these buildings, would be retained.

Authorizations and Special Permits. The Unified Bulk Program would include bulk waivers to assure that the tighter bulk constraints do not impose unexpected and onerous burdens in specific situations and do not unduly inhibit the design of architecturally innovative and distinguished buildings. Minor modifications of all streetwall, coverage, court and distance between building regulations would be available by City Planning Commission authorization, if found to be consistent with neighborhood character. More significant modifications, including height waivers and tower coverage, would be permitted only by City Planning Commission special permit. The special permit would require a finding that the proposed development has a high quality design. A panel of architects and others concerned with design issues would be established to advise the City Planning Commission on the design merits of these special permit applications.

Copyright 2016 The City of New York Contact Us Privacy Policy Terms of Use