“The City Map is the official adopted map of the city. It shows the location, dimension and grades of streets, parks, public places and certain public easements.”
This definition was taken from the Applicant Portal of the Department of City Planning website under Actions Requiring Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), Changes to the City Map, and while it may not be the “official” definition, it does get to the point of what the City Map is and what is shown on it. The next questions that most likely come to mind are likely “Where can I see it?”, “Who has it?”, “Can I get a copy of it?”, or maybe even “Why should I care about the City Map when Google has a perfectly good map of the city?”
Let me begin by first explaining what the City Map is in the physical sense. It is not one comprehensive map showing the entire city that you could roll out on a large table (or basketball court), but instead it is a collection of thousands of maps of small areas of the city, each of which shows “the official adopted map of the city” for a that limited area. These maps are called alteration maps. Here is an example of an alteration map.
An alteration map becomes part of the official City Map whenever “the location, dimension and grades of streets, parks, public places and certain public easements” are changed anywhere in the city and that map change becomes effective. The “becomes effective” bit is important because unlike some other ULURP Actions, City Map changes are NOT effective upon adoption by the City Council, but must wait until the day after they are “certified and filed” with the Department of City Planning. The certification and filing step that makes the map part of the official City Map may not take place for several years after adoption by City Council. For example, the adoption date for the map change shown above was 04/28/2010, as stated in the paragraph above the “certified and filed” date. However, the alteration map was “certified and filed” on 02/27/2015 and so it finally “became effective” on 02/28/2015, almost five years after it was adopted.
The enlargement shown below, taken from this particular alteration map, reveals another interesting point- note there is no mention of the City Council anywhere in the paragraph. This is because the ULURP process allows the City Council a limited amount of time to take action on a City Map change following adoption by the City Planning Commission. If the City Council takes no action before that time expires, then the City Planning Commission’s adoption is considered final and the map then becomes effective the day after it is “certified and filed.” Had the City Council elected to take action on this map, there would be additional text showing the City Council’s adoption date and calendar number. If either the City Council or the City Planning Commission had rejected the map change, there would be no paragraph at all, and no map either, for that matter. City Map changes that are rejected are discarded.
This is a good point at which to answer the question of “Why should I care about the City Map when Google has a perfectly good map of the city?” The official adopted map of the city is not the same as Google’s map (or Bing or OpenStreetMap or even NYCityMap). While these other maps are good for showing what exists in the physical world , the City Map also shows streets that are official but have never been actually constructed. Also, the City Map will not show any streets that are not actually official city streets. Well, that last statement is not entirely true. The City Map does show, usually with dashed lines, what are known as “record streets.” These are streets that were present when the alteration map was created, but are not actually part of the official City Map. Record streets may or may not still exist in the real world, but for official purposes they are known as “streets of record” and they may be used for legal descriptions.
The City Map can affect someone who is looking to build (or rebuild) in an area where the built streets do not conform to the official City Map. This condition applied to parts of the Breezy Point neighborhood in Queens, an area damaged extensively during Hurricane Sandy. Many structures that were destroyed by the hurricane were built on top of officially mapped streets, which resulted in delays in obtaining permits to rebuild. Therefore, if you are thinking of building a(nother) new pie store on a vacant lot you saw in Google Street View (or while out walking), it is helpful to consult the City Map first. There could be a mapped street on the lot.
If it seems incredible to you that the entire extent of New York City could be completely covered by these limited-area alteration maps, then you are justified in that belief. There are many areas of the city that are not covered by any alteration map at all. So then what makes up the official City Map in these areas where there is no alteration map coverage, for example, all of the pink areas in the image below?
The Borough Presidents’ Final Section Maps are the answer.
Within the Borough President’s Office of each of the city’s five boroughs can be found a Topographic Bureau and a borough engineer. These Topographic Bureaus are the custodians of that borough’s Borough Map (also known as Final Section Map) along with all of the alteration maps filed within that borough. For any area within a borough that is not covered by an alteration map, the Borough Map is the official City Map. Every borough has its own style of Final Section/Borough maps. Personally I find the Queens maps have the best cartography. Below is one of them.
Now we have established enough of the background understanding necessary to answer the question of what is the official City Map with a little more precision. The official City Map for any area within the city is the most recently filed alteration map that covers that particular area. If there is no alteration map coverage, then the official City Map is the Borough Map. This seems pretty simple in concept, but often the determination of the official City Map for a particular area requires consultation of multiple, overlapping alteration maps plus the Borough Map, making it difficult to get a complete picture of what is official for the exact area that you care about. Wouldn’t it be great if someone synthesized all those alteration maps and Borough Maps into one single map or set of maps so your City Map research could proceed at more of a crime-scene-investigation-TV-show pace? Well, for all you CSIs of urban planning out there, the DCP Street Sectional Maps and Zoning Maps are your answer, mostly.
The DCP Street Sectional Map is essentially a schematic representation of the official city streets. I say schematic because, while the maps drawn to scale, sometimes the density of line work requires a bit of out-of-scale manipulation to make the street lines clear. The point is to provide a quick reference to the official city streets, not to make accurate measurements on the map. Street Sectional maps only show official (and record) street lines, official (and record) street names, honorary street names, parks, and public places. There are no dimensions or grades shown on these maps. Record streets are shown as dashed lines… but so are hidden lines, like underpasses, for example. You have to go by context to judge which dashed lines are record streets and which are underpasses.
The Sectional map is available for free at some public libraries and for purchase at the DCP Bookstore. There are thirty-five, 24” x 36” map sheets covering the whole city. Unfortunately, the Sectional Maps are only current to around 1997- the exact “current to” date is printed at the bottom of each individual map. Here is Street Sectional Map 8 which covers a popular section of Manhattan.
Fortunately, the Street Sectional Map is also the base map for the Zoning Map. Each of the 126 Zoning Maps covers a quarter portion of a sectional map. For example, the above section map 8 is covered by four zoning maps: 8a, 8b, 8c, and 8d. Zoning changes and City Map changes are often related to each other, and, probably because zoning changes more frequently than the City Map, the streets as shown on the Zoning Map are kept current to the present date. So, if you need to make a quick check on what the City Map is for any area, skip the Street Sectional Map and go directly to the Zoning Map.
In summary, for researching the Official City Map of New York City:
A) If you just need a general idea of what the official streets are in a particular area- just look at the zoning map. This will show you what the official street layout is.
B) If you are involved in serious land use business and you really need to know exactly what the official streets are, then you should go to that Borough President’s Topographic Office and research the filed alteration maps and Borough maps for your area of interest.
Resources for City Map research:
Brooklyn Borough President’s Topographic Bureau
Bronx Borough President’s Topographic Office (see Title Maps, Grade Maps, Monument Maps)
Manhattan Borough President’s Topographic Services Office
Contact for Queens Borough President’s Topographic Unit
Contact for Staten Island Borough President’s Office
Zoning application (ZoLa)