As most of you know, I am not a big fan of zoning. In fact, my wife and I recently made the mistake of attending a Cambridge zoning hearing. It does bad things to my blood pressure to hear people state with apparent sincerity that limiting buildings to three stories will keep rents lower.
Seriously, this building should be at least as tall as the 1970s-era one right next to it.
Here is a nice short economic history of zoning. The argument is that the streetcar first enabled the creation of informal residential districts. (Before that, you just could not cleanly separate residential and commercial functions, since city size was limited and commutes painful. Workplaces and residences had to be close.) Then the truck and bus came along and busted up the informal zoning that had emerged. Ergo, formal zoning.
I am only partially convinced. After all, it should not have been surprising to anyone that apartment buildings would follow townhomes along the streetcar lines. Why wait until cars and trucks came along? In addition, the explanations for the 1970s spread and tightening of zoning laws are ad hoc. I would like to know more.