Reading Zoning Maps in New York City

Land Use, Municipal Law

As a land use and zoning attorney in New York City, I often counsel owners, developers, brokers, lenders, architects and other attorneys on how the city’s zoning regulations affect properties in the city. This might include, for example, a lender seeking a zoning opinion before providing construction financing on a new development, an architect asking me to confirm calculations in a zoning analysis, or a real estate attorney seeking zoning advice before closing on a client’s purchase. I also see many owners, developers, brokers, lenders, architects and attorneys forego the assistance of zoning counsel and complete their own zoning review and, quite often, zoning issues arise that require my assistance after the fact. While it may seem simple, one issue that I see quite often is a mistake in reading the applicable zoning map. Since determining the applicable zoning district for a property is one of the first steps when analyzing the zoning for a property in New York City, a mistake here can poison everything that follows.

New York City is divided into Residential (R), Commercial (C) and Manufacturing (M) zoning districts. The R, C and M zoning districts are further subdivided into districts that have different use and bulk requirements. Before you can analyze the relevant use and bulk provisions set forth in the Zoning Resolution of the City of New York with respect to a given property, you must first determine the applicable zoning district. A mistake here can be fatal to a project. Various property search websites, such as PropertyShark, might be a fine starting point for determining the zoning for a specific property, but I would not trust them beyond that. You must review the actual zoning maps.

There are 126 zoning maps for New York City. According to the Department of City Planning, each map covers an area of 8,000 feet (north/south) by 12,500 feet (east/west). The zoning maps show the underlying zoning district, as well as commercial overlays and special districts. Typically, the distance of a zoning district boundary line from the street is identified on the zoning map, but, other times, it is not. I would note that a site like PropertyShark may identify a property that is divided by a zoning district boundary, but it may not accurately determine how much of the property is in each zoning district, which is most critical. It may also fail to recognize, for example, that the property is in a limited height district or special district.

When the location of a district boundary is defined on the zoning map with a distance to the street, this distance controls. However, when a distance is not shown, you must fall back on Article 7, Chapter 6 of the Zoning Resolution of the City of New York. This section provides different distances for the boundary line depending upon the applicable zoning district and whether the boundary line is parallel to the short dimension of the block, or parallel to the long dimension of the block. The distances range from 100 to 200 feet from the nearest street and, in the case of a boundary line that is parallel to the long dimension of the block between two parallel streets, the boundary line is deemed to run down the center of the block. Where the boundary line runs between two streets that are not parallel and no dimension is shown, the boundary is the bisector of the angle formed by prolonging the street lines to an intersection. Lastly, where the boundary is shown within a street, that boundary is deemed to be located at the center of the street.

It is easy to see how mistakes can be made. Getting a commercial overlay boundary wrong by a few feet is one thing, but getting the boundary between a residential and manufacturing zoning district wrong can mean the difference between having a residential building or not. My advice: always review the actual zoning maps and, if necessary, have them drawn on a survey.

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