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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.
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Why New York's Skyline Has a Distinct Look

117 Folder Collection
Samuel published on October 4, 2018
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