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Columbia University Digital Knowledge Ventures The Architecture and Development of New York City with Andrew S. Dolkart
image The Birth of the Skyscraper The First U.S. Zoning Law
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The First U.S. Zoning Law
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In 1916, New York passed the first zoning law in America, and because New Yorkers did not want to cap the height of skyscrapers, they decided that they would regulate the shape of skyscrapers. The idea was that that light and air would reach the sidewalk; light and air were a major issue. So the law stated that you could build right up to the lot line on your building and you could rise up to a certain height and then once you reached that height, you had to step back, you had to set the bulk of the building back. And the height that you could build up to depended upon the width of the street on which your building was located. On a wide street you could have a street wall that was higher than if you were on a narrow street, where the first setback would have to be at a lower story. You would rise up and then you would set back, and then you could rise up some more, and then you had to set back again. There was a formula for how high you could go before you had to set back. Once you reached 25 percent of your lot area, you could build a skyscraper of any height. So on 25 percent of the lot, you could build a slender tower. So this gives New York skyscrapers built between 1916 and about 1960 their unique profile—a bulky base with setbacks and a slender tower soaring up above. And this becomes the model for the skyscraper.

Now the law stated that you had to rise up and set back and rise up and set back, and there was a formula for it, but you could manipulate this so if it said that you could rise up 100 feet before you had to set back, that did not mean that you had to do that, it just meant that once you reached 100 feet, you had to set back. You could actually set back at 50 feet if you wanted to, if you wanted to make the building more dramatic. So there was a lot of leeway for the designer in this new zoning law.

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