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Public Plazas are New York’s great bribe

by Nigel Chiwaya on July 13, 2011

Post image for Public Plazas are New York’s great bribe
Photo via Smath on Flickr

Do me a favor and think back to your lunch break. Do you remember what you did after you got your Chipotle burrito (besides grumbling at the price)? You probably went and sat down in some public plaza somewhere in Manhattan.

Man, there sure are a lot of those public spaces, with their well-lit waterfalls and fancy trees. How come they’re there anyway? Why not just bulldoze them and put in a Century 21? Well it turns out that in the development world, public plazas are the equivalent of (legal) bribe money. 

Let’s take it back a bit; all the way back to the late 1800s. Back then two big things were happening; New York was well on its way to becoming the financial capital of the country, and immigrants were flowing into the city like a water from a leaky tap. These two things created a need for more buildings(offices for the business people and housing for the immigrants/commoners). The zoning rules weren’t as strict back then as they were now, so developers just started building stuff as high as they wanted to. This of course made New Yorkers crazy, because big buildings tend to block out sunlight.

Things came to a head in 1915 when the 538 foot Equitable Building (see right) was built in Lower Manhattan. The building cast a huge 7-acre shadow over the surrounding streets (that’s about 7 football fields of shadow).

This, and the fact that housing developers were making bigger and bigger buildings while skipping on buidling-safety measures forced the city to make a move, and what came out of it was the Zoning Resolution of 1916. The resolution strictly limited the height and size of buildings and created neighborhood areas that were safe from crazy skyscrapers (ever noticed how there are no skyscrapers on the Upper West Side?). It also created the tall, skinny form factor that New York skyscrapers adopted and helped designate the three-to-six story residential buildings that we all know and love.

Good, good. Now let’s move forward to the 1960s. By this point the zoning laws of 1916 are looking woefully out of date. The city’s population kept expanding, but the buildings couldn’t get any bigger. In addition there wasn’t an awful lot of public space beyond the parks. So the powers that be went back to the drawing board and came up with the Zoning Resolution of 1961 (pdf). This resolution introduced something called incentive zoning; developers could make their buildings taller if they included public plazas in the designs. Developers took off with the new law and began to build bigger and bigger, all the while making sure to include a space where the average joe could sit down and eat his burrito or where the average hobo could sleep in peace.

So there you have it; public plazas exist only because they allow developers to build bigger buildings. Now it makes sense as to why that crazy waterfall was in that public space you were sitting in; something has to distract you from the fact that the buildings around the plaza block out all the sunlight. [NYC Dept. of City Planning, Journal of Aesthetics and Protest]

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