Weighing The Merits Of Building Tall

FtGreene1950s
Fort Greene in the 1950s. Image: Piotr Redlinski for The New York Times

Rezoning and density are words that kindle very different emotions and reactions—from excitement and curiosity to fear and anger. The current proposed changes to New York City’s zoning code have sparked all of those amidst growing debate.

In this edition of Gems from the Archives, we explore some interesting and prescient dialogue about the urban environment. We have touched on the issues of zoning and planning in other Gems posts—as in the creation of new neighborhoods like Battery Park City and anti-development organizing around Washington Square Park. But here we look at the context of density in the mid-20th Century.

By 1950 the city’s population was at a highest-yet 7.9 million, and had of course grown every decade in the city’s history. The tremendous growth of the turn of the century was receding but had not yet turned negative; between 1930 and 1940, the population grew 23%, followed by 8% the following decade.

Some CHPC board members formed a “Committee on Planning Problems” and a “Committee on Heights of Buildings” that discussed the problems of density and the strain of population growth on public services. The concept of rezoning areas for greater density—mostly to facilitate public housing projects—received special attention. Our archival documents suggest a spirited debate took place through 1950 and 1951.

Those committees recognized the complexity and intertwining of these issues. In a July 1950 letter, CHPC Executive Vice President Ira Robbins wrote, “There is disagreement among experts, and much confusion in the public mind, on two separate problems in large-scale housing. One deals with the maximum number of families in any project, particularly where land costs are low. The other is whether or not it is desirable or advantageous to build tall buildings, from the point of view of suitability for family living. Admittedly, the two subjects often must be discussed together.”

Records and minutes of meetings from this period reflect the see-saw of height- versus living standards-based arguments. In discussing the merits of building tall, conversations returned again and again to costs. “The real distinction should be walk-ups versus elevator [buildings],” was one comment. Many participants were in favor of a mix of high-rise elevator buildings and walk-up brownstones. One committee member, Jose Luis Sert, argued that “the best pattern is that of Fresh Meadows: low buildings really low, and high buildings really high.” By “liberating” the maximum building heights, he said, it would be easier to avoid building “canyons” of tall buildings with no open space nearby. Still, another member replied, the city should “consider individual cases as special circumstances arise—can’t apply generalization too rigidly throughout.”

An interesting wrinkle in the 1950—51 discussion was the so-called “20-percent rule,” which stipulated that land costs not exceed 20 percent of total development costs. This rule would have put pressure on developers in high-value areas to build exclusively tall buildings. In addition, it would have made it difficult to build anything affordable, especially in those days, when government subsidy programs were scarce. In a CHPC committee meeting, member William Vladeck argued that that rule may have overstayed its welcome, as it “might be better to pay for land now rather than for services and schools later.”

Again, conclusions most easily settled on a case-by-case analysis. “High density in itself is not bad if open spaces are carefully planned,” Sert argued, according to our archives.

“In fact, he feels that planned high density is the only solution in cities. Density in itself is not objectionable and the overextension of New York City will be more disastrous. Two prime factors which are closely related are the relation of the population and city services and sufficient open space to house people comfortably. A balance must be reached between the two. If the result is good, it is good regardless of the resultant density figure. Consequently, each project site presents its own problem.”

Much of the debates of 60-plus years ago ring true today, albeit through a historical lens that corrects for assumptions like “family” definitions, for example. It is clear that although cost figures may change, the fundamental arguments for and against building tall are constant.

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