Theses Master's

Contextual Zoning as a Preservation Planning Tool in New York City

Levy, Rachel Mollie

Contextual zoning is a planning tool used to preserve neighborhood character and promote desirable development. It has increasingly been applied to the distinctive historic neighborhoods of New York City to ensure a visual relationship between new development and the surrounding built environment. As a zoning device, this approach is rooted in the domain of urban planning, having been conceived in New York City by the Department of City Planning (DCP) in the 1980s. While historic districts have been the traditional approach to preserving the character of neighborhoods since the 1960s, contextual zoning offers an additional route to the preservation of neighborhood character. The conditions and effects of this strategy remain unstudied and this research seeks to fill that gap through a study of neighborhoods where contextual zoning has been applied in New York City both as an alternative to and in conjunction with historic district regulation. This thesis seeks to answer the following questions: how does contextual zoning currently function as a de facto preservation planning strategy in New York City? Does the broad level preservation it fosters, with its focus more on scale and siting of new buildings rather than integrity of old ones, provide a useful alternate strategy to pursue beyond traditional historic districts? How well does it perform producing new buildings that are visually compatible with existing neighborhood character? In other words, is contextual zoning actually contextual? To answer these questions, this thesis examines four neighborhoods, focused on the rowhouse districts of Brooklyn, where both historic districts and contextual zoning have been applied. The goal of this research is to understand the evolution of these two land use tools in a place-based context and to construct a narrative which discusses the ways in which contextual zoning functions as an alternative preservation strategy, the factors that have contributed to the use of contextual zoning in particular neighborhoods, and perceptions of successful outcomes of contextual zoning. A series of stakeholder interviews with city officials and neighborhood activists to understand the motivations for the application of contextual zoning from both perspectives, as well as a review of city documents and newspaper articles from the time of the rezonings, forms the basis for this narrative. By tracing the application this zoning mechanism in four neighborhoods, this thesis codifies the functions of contextual zoning with respect to historic preservation in New York City, and evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of this approach as compared to the traditional strategy of historic district designation.

Geographic Areas


  • thumnail for LevyRachel_GSAPPUP_2015_Thesis.pdf LevyRachel_GSAPPUP_2015_Thesis.pdf application/pdf 19 MB Download File

More About This Work

Academic Units
Urban Planning
Thesis Advisors
Clark, Carol
Beauregard, Robert A.
M.S., Columbia University
Published Here
July 17, 2015