New York University land use scholar examines NYC rezonings in Wolf Lecture
Since New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office in 2002, the city has engaged in the rezoning of about 11,000 lots within its limits, which equals about one-quarter of its total land area. Even for one of the world’s largest cities, this is an unusually high level of rezoning, according to Vicki L. Been, Boxer Family Professor of Law at New York University School of Law.
As the guest lecturer for the fifth annual Wolf Family Lecture on American Law of Real Property, Been — who is also the director of the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy at NYU Law — examined this peculiar situation with her presentation, “Who Controls Land Use Regulation: The Urban Growth Machine versus Homevoters,” Feb. 28 at UF Law.
Been conducted an empirical study that attempted to gain insight into the reasons for such a high rate of rezoning in the past decade in New York City.
“There’s a wide variety of views about what motivates the people who make land use decisions,” Been said at the lecture. “These are members of the planning commission, or the members of the city council that has to vote on planning commission proposals, the mayor, or administrative agencies like the zoning board of appeals.”
These ideas about decision makers’ motivation are usually categorized into several land use theories, Been said. In her study, she chose to focus on two of the most developed and potentially revealing theories: the Urban Growth Machine theory, which is “a sort of unmitigated attempt to grow the city or grow the community,” and the Homevoters theory, which is about “the control that the homeowners have over the land use decisions.”
Been looked at a selection of 100 lots that were rezoned between 2003 and 2009 and compared a number of factors, including whether the lots were “downzoned” (more restrictive), “upzoned” (less restrictive) or “non-FAR zoning” (no major changes in floor-area ratio). The non-FAR zoned areas often required any new construction to be consistent in looks with existing structures.
The study revealed that there was about a 2 percent increase in the housing capacity in New York City, which could accommodate approximately 230,000 people in the next decade, but it is projected that the city will need to be able to accommodate about 1 million people during that time.
The overall results of Been’s study did not reveal a clear-cut conclusion about which theory may be driving the rezoning decisions in New York City. Results show some support for the Urbam Growth Machine theory, while other results lean more toward the Homevoters theory than was anticipated for a city of New York’s size.
Been said the results reveal the difficulties in articulating how theories involving land use politics will play out in practice and caution against any kind of broad presumptions about motivations behind land use decisions.
The Wolf Family Lecture Series was endowed by a gift from UF Law Professor Michael Allan Wolf, who holds the Richard E. Nelson Chair in Local Government Law, and his wife, Betty. Professor Wolf is the general editor of a 17-volume treatise, Powell on Real Property. The treatise is the most referenced real property treatise in the country and is cited regularly by the courts, including several citations in the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Wolf family’s strong ties to the University of Florida date back to the 1930s, when Professor Wolf’s father, Leonard Wolf, was a UF undergraduate. Since that time, two more generations of his descendants have made their way to Gainesville to study and work.
Past scholars who have delivered the Wolf Family Lecture in the American Law of Real Property include Thomas W. Merrill, Charles Evans Hughes Professor of Law at Columbia Law School; Gregory S. Alexander, A. Robert Noll Professor of Law at Cornell Law School; Lee Fennel, Max Pam Professor of Law at the University of Chicago; and Joseph William Singer, Bussey Professor of Law at Harvard Law School.