Sylvia Deutsch, NYC’s first female land-use czar, dies at 96

As head of City Planning, Deutsch promoted affordable housing, renewed Times Square

New York /
Jun.June 24, 2021 12:40 PM
Sylvia Deutsch was a driving force behind the revitalization of Times Square (Getty)

Sylvia Deutsch was a driving force behind the revitalization of Times Square (Getty)

Sylvia Deutsch, the first woman to lead the New York City Planning Commission as well as the Board of Standards and Appeals, died Monday in Monroe Township, NJ. She was 96.

During her tenure as head of the planning commission in the late 1980s, Deutsch encouraged the development of squatter residential buildings over the narrow towers favored by luxury builders as a way to promote affordable housing. She introduced lower-density residential areas to many neighborhoods, part of a practice she called “contextual zoning.”

But Deutsch was also a driving force behind the revitalization of Times Square, pushing zoning changes to require more space for entertainment uses, and promoting the towering, high-tech signage that has since become the signature look of the Crossroads of the World.

Deutsch led the powerful Board of Standards and Appeals — which rules on appeals of city building codes and zoning variances — for six years before being appointed by Mayor Ed Koch to head the planning commission in 1987. She is the only person to have led both departments.

Claiming a mandate to reform a board long seen as too accommodating to developers, Deutsch overhauled the staff and required more stringent environmental reviews.

The Brownsville native and mother of three first became active in politics through her local PTA, and rose to become vice president of United Parents Association of New York City during the contentious time when the state decentralized control of elementary and middle schools to elected community school boards.

In 1972, Deutsch was appointed as a member of the planning commission by Mayor John Lindsay, where she served until becoming chair of the Board of Standards and Appeals in 1981.

She finished out her career as associate professor of real estate at New York University.

[NYT] — Bill Egbert


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