Norman Marcus, New York City Zoning Expert, Dies at 75
Published: July 7, 2008
Norman Marcus, who as general counsel to the New York City Planning Commissionion Commission 20 years drafted much of the intricate legal language intended to preserve the historic character of many of the city’s neighborhoods while still allowing new construction, died on June 30 at his home in Manhattan. He was 75.
The cause was cancer, his son-in-law Peter Miller said.
Mr. Marcus was a master of the labyrinthine codes and designations — the R8s and C7s — that list the rules on square footage, height, air rights, parking requirements, types of businesses and even exposure to sunlight that govern construction in a given area.
“He was my strong right arm in difficult days,” said John E. Zuccotti, the chairman of the planning commission from 1973 through 1975 and one of five chairmen Mr. Marcus advised in his 22-year career, starting in 1963.
Mr. Zuccotti was referring to a particular challenge he faced in his first year as chairman, a proposal by a City Charter commission to eliminate the City Planning Department. The department is the agency that carries out Planning Commission policy.
With Mr. Marcus’s help, Mr. Zuccotti said, “we were able to make them recognize the importance of planning and turn it around.”
Mr. Marcus was also “the spark plug behind many of the special districts that were created,” Mr. Zuccotti said. For example, he led the legal team that established the Midtown Manhattan district, in which air rights above Broadway theaters could be transferred to nearby development sites, thereby preserving the historic architecture of the theaters.
It was a concept that Mr. Marcus first promoted in 1968 when the Penn Central Railroad, which then owned Grand Central Terminal, struck a deal with a developer to build a 55-story office tower above the station, which had landmark status.
Working with the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, Mr. Marcus and his legal team developed the plan for transferring the air rights above Grand Central to nearby locations. Penn Central challenged the idea through the courts and, in 1978, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the transfer was not illegal.
Mr. Marcus was also an architect of inclusionary zoning, which offers tax breaks to developers of luxury housing if they set aside a portion of their building — usually 20 percent — for low- or middle-income tenants. Inclusionary zoning started in Manhattan in the 1970s and now helps promote mixed-income neighborhoods in many sections of the city.
“He was part of the team that came up with the idea, and he certainly was the man who translated the idea into the legislation,” Mr. Zuccotti said.
Among Mr. Marcus’s other accomplishments was drafting the so-called loft law, which legalized artists’ occupation of loft spaces in what had once been mostly manufacturing districts.
Born in the Bronx on Aug. 31, 1932, Mr. Marcus was the only child of David and Evelyn Freed Marcus. He graduated from Columbia in 1953 and received a law degree from Yale four years later. While at Yale, he met Maria Lenhoff, whom he married in 1956. Ms. Marcus is now the Joseph M. McLaughlin professor of law at Fordham University.
Besides his wife, Mr. Marcus is survived by two daughters, Valerie and Nicole Marcus, both of Manhattan; a son, Eric, of Auburn, Ala.; and four grandchildren.
After leaving the Planning Commission in 1985, Mr. Marcus went into private practice while also teaching zoning law at New York University, the Cardozo School of Law, Pratt Institute and the architecture school at Princeton.
Two years ago, the Municipal Art Society of New York, an organization that promotes excellence in urban design and planning, cited Mr. Marcus for his “illustrious career using the art and craft of land-use law to shape a better New York.”
From his earliest days in public life, Mr. Marcus had been an ardent advocate of neighborhood preservation. In 1964, when New York City‘s Board of Standards and Appeals granted the utility Consolidated Edison a zoning variance to build a power substation in a residential area of Upper Manhattan, Mr. Marcus called it “a classic example of the chaos which ensues when carefully considered legislation on zoning and urban renewal is ignored.”
Correction: July 11, 2008
An obituary on Monday about Norman Marcus, the lawyer responsible for much of the language in New York City’s zoning regulations, referred incorrectly to the city’s Board of Standards and Appeals, which granted a zoning variance that Mr. Marcus criticized in 1964. The board still exists; it is not defunct.