Monday, May 22, 2006

"Unsuitable trades" -- an anecdote of zoning history

   The greatest debate in American land use history concerns the 20th century practice of zoning.  For some, the chief effect of zoning has been what governments and the Euclid decision said -- the furthering of the general public welfare by separating incompatible uses and shaping growth to serve public goals. For critics, the chief effect of zoning has been to assist certain private interests -- influential ones, of course -- to exclude uses and people that these interests do not want around. 

   A snippet of history in support of the skeptical view is found in John's Tauranac's history of the creation of New York's Empire State Building, which I'm reading in honor of the famous office tower's 75th birthday.  Many people are familiar with the role that downtown Manhattan's Equitable Life building, which rose a shocking 38 stories straight up and above the narrow streets in 1915, played in encouraged New York City to adopt a zoning law.  But if height, bulk, and shadows were bothering people downtown, other interests were at work in midtown.   The booming garment manufacturing industry -- mostly small firms of Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe -- was spreading toward fashionable midtown Fifth Avenue.  Alarmed, a group of wealthy retailers pushed to zone the garment manufacturers away from Fifth Avenue. The New York Times opined on Oct. 2, 1916, that the "invasion of unsuitable trades, bringing throngs of workers who would monopolize the sidewalks and repel fashionable shoppers, was undesirable."  New York City adopted its first zoning law that year.

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