Rules for Special Areas

Waterfront zoning maximizes the public’s access to, and enjoyment of, the city’s waterfront resources while enabling appropriate redevelopment along the shoreline.

New York City adopted special zoning regulations affecting waterfront development in 1993. Waterfront zoning ( Article VI, Chapter 2, of the Zoning Resolution) addresses the form, size and location of new development, and the amount and quality of required waterfront public access areas. It applies special bulk and use regulations to developments on waterfront blocks, as well as to piers, platforms and floating structures, and mandates waterfront public access along the shoreline. Regulations also allow for the site-specific modification of public access requirements through Waterfront Access Plans (WAPs) for stretches of waterfront parcels with unique conditions and opportunities.

Waterfront zoning regulations apply to properties within waterfront blocks, which are blocks adjacent to or intersected by the shoreline.

Waterfront public access regulations were modified in 2009 to ensure the development of inviting and well-designed public open spaces and promote the greening of the waterfront.

Bulk Regulations

Building setback at water’s edge. Schaefer Landing, Brooklyn
Building setback at water’s edge. Schaefer Landing, Brooklyn

Waterfront bulk regulations apply to developments within waterfront blocks in all zoning districts. In low-density residence districts and medium and high-density contextual districts, waterfront development generally follows the same bulk rules as upland development with slight modifications that tailor the regulations to waterfront sites. For instance, to maintain an open area along the shoreline, waterfront yards substitute for rear yards.

In non-contextual medium- and high-density districts, taller buildings are permitted, but a sense of openness at the water’s edge is ensured by rules controlling height, the length of buildings parallel to the shoreline and the footprint of towers. To create a varied skyline at the water’s edge, additional floors are allowed if the building top is set back along all sides of the building.

To prevent excessive density and bulk generated by portions of land under water on a waterfront zoning lot, lot area seaward of the bulkhead line may not be used to generate floor area. Piers and platforms, however, may transfer floor area to the landward portion of the zoning lot.

All residential and commercial developments are required to provide a waterfront yard that is 30 to 40 feet wide, depending on the district, along the entire shoreline of the zoning lot.

Public Access Requirements

In all districts, residential, commercial and community facility developments on waterfront zoning lots (except for residential uses in low-density residence districts, heavy commercial and industrial uses in Use Groups 16, 17 and 18, and certain city infrastructure facilities, such as airports) are required to provide and maintain public open space at the water’s edge with pedestrian links to upland communities. Public access is also mandated on piers, platforms and floating structures. Water-dependent uses, such as docks for ferries and marinas, are also required to provide waterfront public access areas but are subject to a more flexible standard.

Additional rules govern the location, minimum size, proportion and design elements for waterfront public access areas.

Waterfront public access area at IKEA. Red Hook, Brooklyn
Waterfront public access area at IKEA. Red Hook, Brooklyn
Example of meandering path in Hudson River Park, Manhattan
Example of meandering path in Hudson River Park, Manhattan

In districts allowing a floor area ratio (FAR) of 4.0 or less where a development would require public access, a minimum of 15 percent of the lot area must be improved and maintained for this purpose. In districts permitting an FAR greater than 4.0, the minimum lot area dedicated to public access must be 20 percent.

Waterfront public access areas have three components: shore public walkways, upland connections and supplemental public access areas. Shore public walkways, which must be located on the waterfront yard, provide the public with a place to stroll and sit along the shoreline, and upland connections give direct access to the shore public walkway at regular intervals (at least every 600 feet) from upland public streets or other public places. A supplemental public access area is required only when the combined space devoted to the shore public walkway and upland connections does not fulfill the minimum square footage requirement for public access on a zoning lot. This additional open space must complement the shore public walkway, having similar design elements that enhance the experience along the water’s edge. An accessible lawn must be provided when the supplemental area is of a substantial size. In addition, space for active recreation, such as playgrounds or dedicated bike paths, may be incorporated into the supplemental public access area.

Waterfront public access area and visual corridor requirements
Waterfront public access area and visual corridor requirements
The entry area to an upland connection, which is adjacent to a public place, must have inviting seating and an adequate balance of planting and paved areas. All entrances must be clearly marked with signage, stating hours of operation and other pertinent information.

To ensure that the waterfront public access area is inviting and well-used, the regulations require planting, seating, tables, shaded areas, bike racks and trash receptacles. In order to promote direct physical access to the water, where appropriate, guardrails along the shoreline are optional. The location and height of fences, gates and other protective barriers are limited to guarantee maximum visibility within the public open space.

The location of parking on the ground floor of a building adjoining a public street or public access area is controlled so that more active uses, such as shops and restaurants, will enliven public spaces at and near the water’s edge. All parking lots on waterfront blocks are subject to planting and screening requirements.

Visual Corridors

Upland connection and visual corridor. Schaefer Landing, Brooklyn
Upland connection and visual corridor. Schaefer Landing, Brooklyn

Waterfront zoning also requires visual corridors, which are open areas that provide an unobstructed view from upland streets through a waterfront zoning lot to the shoreline. Intended to extend existing views to the shore from the upland communities, visual corridors are required at regular intervals corresponding to the existing street grid, or spaced between 400 and 600 feet apart. Visual corridors, which are not required to be open to the public, may contain certain obstructions such as parking and trees.

Waterfront Access Plans (WAPs)

Waterfront Access Plans (WAPs) allow for the modification of waterfront public access area requirements to address unique conditions in specific areas. The area must consist of at least a full block or four acres (174,240 sq. ft.) with 600 feet or more of shoreline. The area governed by a WAP must be entirely within the waterfront area.

A WAP adapts waterfront zoning regulations governing public access and height and setback requirements to the specific conditions and planning goals for a defined area. It can be used, for instance, to ensure seamless continuity of shore public walkways to be developed over time by multiple property owners. WAPs have been adopted for the PDF Document Harlem River waterfront within the Special Harlem River Waterfront District in the Bronx, Northern Hunters Point, Downtown Flushing and Newtown Creek waterfronts in Queens, and for the PDF Document Greenpoint-Williamsburg waterfront in Brooklyn.

Review Procedures

For most developments on waterfront blocks, the Chairperson of the City Planning Commission must certify that the proposed development complies with requirements for public access and visual corridors. Once certified, a maintenance and operation agreement with the Department of Parks and Recreation must be filed and recorded before a building permit can be issued by the Department of Buildings. The review procedure helps the city enforce maintenance obligations and the public’s right of access to these areas during required hours of operation and, for planning purposes, track the progress of waterfront development throughout the city.