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  • In a city packed with iconic skyscrapers,

  • the Equitable Building, in the heart

  • of New York City's Financial District,

  • might not seem to stand out.

  • But according to legend, this skyscraper

  • was once considered so obscenely large that it led

  • to the first major zoning law in the United States.

  • And because of that law, it was

  • the last skyscraper of its kind.

  • (light contemporary orchestral music)

  • When it was completed in 1915, the Equitable Building

  • was the largest office building in the world,

  • and an engineering marvel.

  • The building had one problem: it was too big.

  • Designed to maximize rentable office space,

  • it was basically a 40-story H-shaped box

  • crammed onto an acre-sized city block.

  • When it was built, New Yorkers were in an uproar

  • over the "evil effect" of its size.

  • Neighbors complained of the enormous shadow

  • that cast nearby buildings and streets

  • into complete darkness.

  • Meanwhile, developers worried that a glut

  • of these huge office buildings

  • would hurt real estate values.

  • At the time, New York had no laws

  • restricting the size or height of office buildings.

  • But as new technology was pushing skyscrapers

  • like the Equitable Building to unprecedented scale,

  • the outcry for regulation reached a breaking point.

  • Then, something happened.

  • Within a year a law was passed that

  • effectively made skyscrapers like the Equitable Building

  • impossible to build again.

  • It was called the 1916 Zoning Resolution,

  • and it was the first comprehensive zoning law

  • in the United States.

  • To be clear, the Equitable Building

  • didn't directly cause the 1916 Zoning Resolution.

  • It was simply the ultimate scapegoat

  • in a debate that had been heating up for years

  • as new technology made skyscrapers bigger and bigger.

  • Instead of enacting a fixed height limit,

  • like other cities had done,

  • the drafters of the resolution developed an ingenious plan

  • based on something called a setback principle.

  • Here's how it worked.

  • Depending on the district, a building's height

  • could not exceed a certain ratio to the width of the street.

  • In a 1 1/2 district, for example,

  • the maximum height was limited

  • to 1 1/2 times the street width.

  • A building could gain extra height, however,

  • if it were set back from the street.

  • In a 1 1/2 district a building could rise another three feet

  • for each foot that it was set back from the street.

  • Furthermore, in any district, 25% of the lot

  • had no height limit at all.

  • Working within these constraints,

  • architects began to creatively conform designs

  • in what became a characteristic style,

  • starting full width at street level

  • and tapering off in steps as it rose in height.

  • And once you're aware of it you start

  • to see it throughout Manhattan.

  • (upbeat contemporary chamber music)

  • And the intended effect of

  • making New York's dense streets seem more open,

  • for the most part actually works.

  • The Zoning Resolution went beyond height limits too.

  • It also set rules for how land could be used

  • in specific areas of the city,

  • such as prohibiting industrial work

  • in residential or business districts.

  • Around the same time, other American cities

  • began to adopt similar zoning plans.

  • Six years later, Congress passed a law

  • based partly on New York City's example

  • as a blueprint for zoning nationwide.

  • By the 1960s, New York had grown significantly,

  • and so the city passed a new resolution

  • modifying the setback principle

  • to accommodate for new building designs.

  • Meanwhile, the Equitable Building,

  • now a historic landmark and undergoing a major renovation,

  • is a monument to a bygone era,

  • one whose excesses led to New York's iconic skyline,

  • which you'll never look at the same way again.

In a city packed with iconic skyscrapers,

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B2 US zoning equitable height building resolution district

Why New York's Skyline Has a Distinct Look

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    Samuel posted on 2018/10/07
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