Zoning for the General Welfare: A Constitutional Weapon for Lower-Income Tenants


In 1981, the Board of Estimate of the City of New York approved amendments to the City’s zoning resolution that created a Special Manhattan Bridge District (“SMBD”) to facilitate the development of new residential housing on the few remaining vacant lots in Chinatown. The construction of two high-rise luxury condominiums within the teeming District has been delayed pending the resolution of lawsuits challenging the District on a variety of constitutional and other grounds.

The authors of this paper are members of the legal team for Asian Americans for Equality (“AAFE”), a community group representing Chinatown res-idents in one of these lawsuits. This paper sets forth the arguments made by AAFE. It reasons that by ignoring the community’s critical need for decent, lower-income housing, the Special District runs afoul of the general welfare obligations and civil rights protections afforded by the New York State Constitution. Taking our cue from New Jersey’s progressive Mount Laurel doctrine, the authors contend that zoning amendments in New York City must provide a realistic opportunity for the construction of lower-income housing. Instead, the SMBD sanctions the exclusive construction of luxury housing. For the lower-income Chinese residents of the District, the SMBD promises only the discriminatory effects of increased congestion and displacement.

Part One of this article presents and analyzes the SMBD and the study on which it is based. Part Two explores the Mount Laurel doctrine, the expanding notions of general welfare, and the applicability of these to the situation in Chinatown. Viewing the problem from a different perspective, Part Three offers a possible approach under the anti-discrimination and civil rights protections of the New York State Constitution.

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