Once upon a time, there were no building codes, no zoning laws. If you owned land and wanted to build something, you just built it.
Restrictive covenants were put in place to protect neighborhoods and/subdivisions. The most common restrictions on Staten Island are/were: no slaughter houses; no alcohol can be distilled (Prohibition Park, a/k/a Westerleigh), etc. Houses must be 10 feet back, or must cost at least $1,000 to build, etc.
Zoning Story # 1: In the middle ages in Florence, Italy, the Medici family (who were the richest family in Europe) built a tunnel above the buildings in Florence to connect their main residence (palace) in Florence, to the Petit palace, across the Arno River (so that they wouldn’t have to use the streets and mix with the riff raff), by also going over the Ponte Vecchio (which is the oldest and most famous of the six bridges in Florence). There were always shops on the bridges, and in the 15th century these shops on the Ponte Vecchio were greengrocers, butchers, fishmongers. But then perhaps because of their bad smell, and the rat problem caused, Ferdinando I, at the behest of the Great Catherine Medici, replaced them with the Goldsmiths. Smart zoning resulted in one of the finest places to buy Gold jewelry in the world (On and around the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, Italy).
Wikipedia says that the first specific State statute was enacted in the 1860’s that prohibited all commercial activities along Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn.
As early as the 1870’s and 1880’s, New Yorkers began to protest the loss of light and air as tall residential buildings began to appear in Manhattan. In response, the state legislature enacted a series of height restrictions on residential buildings, culminating in the Tenement House Act of 1901, rules that required one window per room to insure air and light.
The whole world was shocked when 148 people died, trapped inside the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in Manhattan on March 25, 1911 which brought reforms to sweat shops; factories; the labor movement; the growth of the importance of the ILGWU; and many attribute it to the creation of the fire code.
In 1916, New York City adopted the first zoning regulations to apply city-wide as a reaction to construction of The Equitable Building (which still stands at 120 Broadway).
During the depression, FDR put lots of people to work, which is what President Obama is trying to do now. Artists’ were hired to draw murals; photographers’ were hired to take photos’, ditch diggers’ were hired to dig ditches, unskilled laborers were hired to build roads, dams, bridges, buildings, etc.
Surveyors, engineers “map makers” were also hired. Parcels of land on Staten Island, (and every where else) were cut up into blocks and lots, 20x100 lots, and drawn onto “filed maps” which were filed at the County Clerks Office. Much of the land was just woods on Staten Island, but now had paper streets with blocks and lots on maps
An example of no zoning is the 3 or 4 bungalows on a single tax lot remaining to this day in some of the beach areas.
Many deeds, especially older deeds still contain descriptions based upon the filed map. Lots # whatever on the map of Keiber Farm, section 2………… although these days the banks require new surveys at every closing, thus new metes and bounds descriptions are prepared.
Prior to the filed maps, descriptions of properties were more basic- ……….to the “row of trees” or the magnolia tree separating the property belonging to Brown and formerly belonging to green; or to the fork in the road, or the edge of the creak, or to the post in the road, etc.
I recently sold a property where the description has as one of its courses- ……and thence 112 feet to the spike in the fence…….. Problem is that the fence and the spike are long gone.
In 1938, there was a fire in the Staten Island building department. Some said that it was arson, to cover up irregularities being investigated involving several lawyers, developers, builders, politicians, where supposedly a couple of guys took the fall, one of whom was rewarded with a big job. The fire wiped out the Certificate of Occupancies records, and that is why on Staten Island, houses built prior to 1938 do not require a Certificate of Occupancy (although many buildings built prior to 1938 do).
Pre-1938 multiple dwellings are quite the headache for the lawyers representing buyers these days and off Island banker’s who don’t understand. Sometimes banks will not lend on them because there is no C of O, although you can get a letter of no objection from the DOB, but even that is insufficient to some lenders. (These are the loans made by local banks that don’t sell their mortgages, like Northfield Savings- to owner occupiers. Are there any other lenders left? (United Brethrens?) that lend Staten Island and don’t sell the loans?).
(When I write these questions, they aren’t meant to be rhetorical, I am really asking- if any one knows, please let me know. I still don’t know what a whipper snapper is- does any one know? Someone who snaps whips?).
Anyway, in the late 50’s, after the post war building boom, we realized that we needed a comprehensive zoning rule for the city. The 1961 Zoning Resolution was a product of its time, created primarily to regulate the high rises in Manhattan, but also to coordinate use and bulk regulations, parking requirements, and emphasized the creation of open space.
For Staten Island, the 1961 zoning dramatically reduced achievable residential densities, by creating and attaching zoning classifications. Now we were regulated with minimum requirements: minimum lot sizes, rear yards, front yards, side yards, height limitations, and zoning districts where you could have attached housing; high rise housing; mid rise housing; commercial uses, etc. Prior to 1961, you could build anything you want, wherever you wanted subject to Covenants, Restrictions, and light and air requirements.
Under the zoning laws, there are minimum lot size requirements for various zones. An R1 lot requires a minimum of 100 feet width; R2 - 40 feet R 3 a– 25 feet; R 3x - 35 feet. Now if you have a lot that has existed separately owned from any other lot next to it, since prior to 1961, then you can still build on it as a pre 1961 zoning law lot.
Staten Island had a couple of rapid growth spurts.
Lots of homes were built after WW2, continuing into the late 50’s, and early 60’s. Lots of Cape’s, then ranches, then the match boxes. How the old Staten Islanders hated them, and complained about them- all of the match box houses being built that all looked alike.
(And now the politicians scream when a builder wants to knock down an old cape, to prevent the construction of new houses.)
Then the bridge opened in 1964.
A lot of people bought land on the South Shore thinking that they were going to make a killing, but there were no sewers. And they sat with their land, many people lost their land, (stopped paying taxes and let the city take the land back) and nothing really happened again until the boom of the mid 70’s (before Carter), and then the boom of the 80’s, and then the boom of the 90’s.
It was very advantageous for land developers to be active in politics in the 50’s and 60’s. A politician might be able to get a small sewer project approved dragging a sewer along another several blocks, or piping some brooks a few blocks. Knowing where these projects were being laid out, you could then buy the land nearby and make a killing. In the 50’s a sewered 40 x 100 in Westerleigh sold for $200. (And maybe you could pick it up for back taxes, or buy the tax lien).
And then came the zoning panic of the early 2000’s. All of a sudden, the politicians got on their soap boxes and tried to make up for all of the years of not doing anything to try to make sense out of the zoning laws. Blocks and blocks, entire communities were rezoned to a lesser density. Of course the knee jerk response was an over reaction, and consequently the new zoning laws are cranking out these skinny houses on 25’ lots, with 0 or 2’ side yards.
So after a lot of noise, and rezoning of Staten Island, construction has come to a halt, partly because the new zoning law doesn’t make sense.
The skinny houses on 25’ lots- some of which are built on stilts to access parking- does this make more sense then semi’s or townhouses?
Sure- parking rules are important but it would be nice if they made sense.
How about this one- no more two family homes in Westerleigh?
But how about a bonus to a builder (to be enjoyed by the eventual home owner) who builds 3 or more houses, and changes them so that they don’t all look alike- with extra floor area? No way.
So we spent all of this time reducing our zoning density, fighting the builders, jumping up and down on soap boxes, and this is what I’ve discovered.
Commercial districts- overlays. This means that although there is residential zoning, if there is a commercial overlay, then you can’t built residential units on the first floor, has to be commercial.
But Forest Avenue, in its busiest commercial spot, -is residentially zoned.
Recently I was attempting to sell the March of Dimes Building on Forest Avenue, to someone who wanted to use it as a law office- but guess what- can’t. Many of the law offices and real estate offices along Forest Avenue are grandfathered in as pre-zoning law commercial usage, or are illegal and ignored.
Why don’t the politicians and the planners look at Forest Avenue, Victory Blvd, Hylan Blvd, etc., and realize that these are commercial shopping areas, and rezone them accordingly?
I was trying to create a Medical building on Victory Blvd, in a building that had always been a medical office since it was built in the 50’s, across the street from a dozen medical offices on Doctor’s row on Victory Blvd. from Clove Road to PS 29. Doctors’ offices are legal in most zones on Staten Island, but the zoning was changed recently along this strip, so that you can’t open a new doctor’s office there, or expand an existing one.
I could understand making it 100 feet back from Victory Blvd. My guess is that they were trying to prevent Royal Oak Road from becoming doctors’ offices, fine- but Victory Blvd?
There must be some real good city planners out there who are out of work these days. Perhaps the next public works stimulus programs hires these people to try to really make sense out of the zoning laws, without regard to the politics of it all.
…………………………to be continued