My first lecture on zoning at Columbia University typically begins with something like:
“We are surrounded by an invisible force…and everything we build is affected by it: our offices, shops, power plants, industrial centers, airports, stadiums, theaters, restaurants, homes, streets, sidewalks — virtually every public and private space you can imagine. Can you feel this unearthly force pulling at you? Can you sense its power?”
This introductory salvo sends students wondering if they’ve registered for a seminar deconstructing the film series Star Wars, or Harry Potter.
While some people may go their whole lives without considering what their property or neighborhood is “zoned for,” or even consider contesting a change of zoning, it affects every person and aspect of living in modern cities.
Working to dispel arcane myths about this esoteric topic, I directed and wrote this short-film on zoning. Associate Producer, Richard ‘Zee’ Rodriguez, and Director of Photography Amanda Saunderson helped bring this film to life. Slightly leaning towards the academic demesne, the film highlights a necessary function in the design of cities as seen from the erection of individual buildings to the amalgamation of city blocks, neighborhoods and communities. Zoning has been a tool utilized by architects and city planners to superimpose an order over our urban and suburban realm in an effort to balance private property rights with the good of the general public. Zoning is strongly tied to real estate development and the act of building, organizing and governing open and enclosed space.
The impact on architecture, real estate and the community is prominently felt in New York City, where five-story walk-ups, medium, tall and super-tall structures are all subject to this regulation — only made visible by the activation of a selection of regulatory provisions that are fit, or ascribed, to a specific purpose or project.
In the City of San Antonio, change is felt months, sometimes years, after a new ordinance is introduced in New York City. The first zoning codes in America were introduced in 1916 and adopted by NYC. Subsequently, other municipalities across the United States began adopting the “New York Model” through state-enabling acts. This effort finally coalesced into the rise of a Unified Development Code, or UDC, which was adopted by the City of San Antonio, and in this way, it inherited a direct descendent of the NYC zoning code. Why this is relevant is because land use trends in urban areas — aside from energy and wind production — are typically tested first in NYC. In San Antonio, land-use cases are beginning to appear that were heard in NYC years ago. Take for example, the case of a young couple living in on San Antonio’s Eastside.
Zoning, and its impact on this young couple’s lives, was strongly felt in the Dignowity Hill neighborhood, where, these Eastsiders had no idea they would soon become so familiar with the City’s zoning rules and the arduous process to change them. As part of the community’s public review process, when some neighbors mounted a vigorous protest against their plans to build a garage and apartment structure, zoning became hot topic. In this case: two community meetings centered on how lack of a land use ordinance governing short-term rentals, should or shouldn’t be considered in zoning cases. It will take at least five more months for the City to determine if such rentals require a change in zoning.
Meanwhile, north of downtown San Antonio, a group of neighbors are trying to get the City to designate some 14 acres of Tobin Hill North as historic, thus providing a protective overlay against demolition, inappropriate home modifications, and odd-ball new construction unbecoming of what the community deems appropriate.
San Antonio City Council will likely take up both cases in June. Their decision will carry with it physical and economic impacts that will reverberate throughout the City. If lessons can be gleaned from the Big Apple, the regulations that will eventually have merit for adoption will serve to uphold life-safety concerns. For residents and policy-makers alike, zoning becomes the art of the possible, mashed up with the science of what is permissible.
With this film, we attempted to make manifest the numerous, “hidden” elements impacting our built environment. My hope was that by converting my teaching syllabus into a screenplay, and allowing the words to become a vibrant visualization, this short-film is intended to reach those interested in learning how zoning policies affect all of us.
Episode 2 is currently being filmed by Portico Productions in New York City and will address air rights and the urban developer.