Ridgewood-developmentBuilding affordable housing often isn’t pretty.

New York City has embarked on a plan to build thousands of new units of affordable housing with widespread public support. In the past, however, such moves have often led to a proliferation of more boxy modern buildings, lacking in character.

On Friday, the city launched changes to the zoning code that will enable developers to build taller apartment buildings with higher ceilings and retail on the ground floor, without having to sacrifice units.

The hope is such changes will produce modern buildings with some of the more appealing features of the elegant brownstones of old, such as first floors that sit slightly elevated from the street, and apartment buildings set back from the street with gracious tree-lined courtyards.

Mostly, the changes are aimed at making it easier and cheaper to build affordable housing, city officials said. They estimate the new rules could encourage developers to build hundreds of new units.

“This will ultimately fix a lot of problems that have held back affordable housing and made it more costly to build,” a spokesman for Mayor Bill de Blasio said.

Many of the current rules were put in place in 1987, in part as a reaction to “towers in the park,” the design style responsible for much of the city’s public housing. Buildings in that style were set back from the street with ample open space, but often had the effect of cutting communities off from the busy street life.

In contrast, the 1980s design standards emphasized placing buildings right on the sidewalk’s edge, but  limited architectural variation.

“We’ve created a straightjacket for design,” said Mark Ginsberg, an architect, speaking of the 1980s approach. Mr. Ginsberg co-authored a 2014 report for the Citizens Housing and Planning Council that helped prompt the new approach.

The changes require approval from the City Council and are likely to be controversial because they involve added height to buildings. The city is also proposing to eliminate the inclusion of parking space for residents as a requirement for affordable units.

“You don’t want the limited subsidies that we have for housing to go into parking,” said Martin Dunn, president of Dunn Development Corp., an affordable-housing developer.