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Williams Lecturer Discusses What's Driving New York City's Unprecedented Rezonings

Like much in land use politics, the results of Professor Vicki Been's comprehensive study of New York City's unprecedented rezoning effort were complicated. But one conclusion was clear: Land use decision-making should be more transparent and tied to city- and region-wide consequences.Image of New York City

Been, director of the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy at the New York University School of Law, discussed her study at Vermont Law School's eighth annual Norman Williams Distinguished Lecture in Land Use Planning and the Law on Feb. 2. Her lecture was titled "Who Controls Land Use Regulation: The Growth Machine Versus Homeowners."

Since 2002, New York City has enacted 101 neighborhood-sized zoning changes throughout the city, which is the first major U.S. city to adopt a comprehensive zoning ordinance. Been explored the city's motivations for making these changes, their implications for the future of the nation's most important urban area and the lessons policymakers and courts can draw from a comprehensive analysis of a city's rezoning decisions.

"Everyone loves to hate zoning," she said, citing such complaints as zoning makes housing unaffordable and that it fosters sprawl, segregation and other social and economic problems.

During her study from 2003 to 2009, she examined New York's zoning maps and texts, and looked at two hypotheses to explain the city's neighborhood-by-neighborhood approach to zoning. In the "growth machine" model, land use officials are part of a powerful pro-growth coalition of government and business elites. In the "homevoter" model, land use decisions are driven by homeowners' desire to protect their property values.

Been looked at New York City's 101 neighborhood rezonings, which covered 811,666 lots in 11,000 blocks, or nearly 25 percent of the entire city. She found that 4.3 percent were "up zonings," which were less restrictive; 4.8 percent were "down zonings," which were more restrictive; and 15.1 percent were "contextual zonings," where what was built depended largely on the existing buildings. The rezonings added 118 million square feet of living space, or 94,000 units, enough for 235,000 people, which won't accommodate the expected population increase of one million in coming years, she said.

Been said her findings show more support for the homevoter model than the growth machine model, but that the "messy results" show the difficulty in articulately what drives land use politics. She said the results show that land use decisions are motivated by complex factors and that broad presumptions should be distrusted.

About the Williams Lecture
Norman Williams came to VLS in 1975 after a distinguished career in public service and teaching, particularly in land use planning. He played a key role in founding VLS's Environmental Law Center. The Norman Williams Distinguished Lecture in Land Use Planning and the Law series is a gift of Frances Yates, trustee of VLS, in memory of Norman Williams and Anya '90 and Charles Yates '90.

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