Planners and Green Groups Call for Off-Street Parking Reform

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Yesterday, several planning and environmental organizations joined Transportation Alternatives on the steps of City Hall to tout the release of "Suburbanizing the City" [PDF], the new report that critiques New York City’s off-street parking policies. The coalition is similar — but not identical — to the array of groups that pushed for congestion pricing earlier this year. Their testimony highlighted the range of benefits that off-street parking reform would deliver, from mitigating tailpipe emissions to reducing housing costs.

Planning advocates recommended doing away with parking
requirements and "unbundling" the cost of parking from the price of
housing. "There’s no reason for parking to be paid for by people who
don’t own cars," said Tri-State Transportation Campaign director Kate
Slevin, adding that the construction of parking should be "a choice rather than a
necessity."

Minimum parking requirements are especially ill-suited to affordable housing developments, said Elena Conte of the Pratt Center for Community Development (pictured at the mic). "[A parking minimum] really makes no sense at all for communities where less than 20 percent of households own cars, because it drives up the cost of housing and takes up valuable space that otherwise could be used to create additional units or public space."

Representatives of Environmental Defense and the New York League of Conservation Voters rounded out the proceedings, calling on the city and state to take stock and head off the traffic-congested future that excessive off-street parking threatens to bring about. "We’re building the infrastructure to encourage more people to drive with very little understanding of the environmental impacts," said Josh Nachowitz of NYLCV.

T.A.’s Paul Steely White tied the issue to preserving New York’s streets for people on foot, noting that more off-street parking means less sidewalk integrity: "Curb cuts enable cars to drive across the sidewalk and block the sidewalk; it erodes the pedestrian environment."

Major planning groups, including the American Planning Association, the Regional Plan Association, and the Municipal Art Society, have also signed on to the report and urged Mayor Bloomberg to revise the city’s ad-hoc policies governing off-street parking. According to one organizer behind the effort, this marks the first time all three organizations have lined up behind the same transportation reform.

Streetsblog will have more soon on the recommendations being advanced by this coalition.

  • Isn’t the availability of off-street parking going to help the take-up of electric cars; the ability to take a power lead from your home to your car must be a good idea, mustn’t it?

  • i think we have this a bit backwards. the biggest obstacle to protected bike and bus lanes is on-street parking. replacing parking with bike lanes seems to be a political non-starter around here. on the other hand, if we replaced on-street parking with an equal amount of underground garage parking, we would benefit from bike/bus lanes as well as less cars cruising for spaces.

  • Larry Littlefield

    I’m a little disappointed with the way the zoning is explained, given that I took the time to explain it here, and the APA Metro Chapter was involved. One can’t accurately describe the city’s policies without including waivers, and special districts. It’s a little more difficult, but not that difficult. One only need to describe what is required on 20,000 square foot (the largest generally achievable) and 10,000-square-foot lots, and what is required for one- and two-family homes.

    ACTUALLY REQUIRED parking is actually much diminished from what has been presented in middle and high density districts, and these are mapped based on proximity to transit, and have been since 1961.

    If the idea is to impose maximums, that would be new in most of the city. Today, however, builders, however, are adding parking because it is profitable for them to do so, by choice.

  • Larry,

    There are recommendations accompanying the report, including the adoption of off-street parking maximums, among other steps. I’ll address those soon in another post. All the advocates I spoke to agree that influencing developers is a big part of the equation, but the first step they want to see is for the city to acknowledge the problem and start measuring off-street parking so that effective policy can be drafted and implemented. More to come…

  • Larry Littlefield

    “the first step they want to see is for the city to acknowledge the problem and start measuring off-street parking so that effective policy can be drafted and implemented.”

    What would be as or more valuable is a tabulation of on-street spaces, and the public land they occupy.

    As for zoning, there is a distinction in the public mind between allowing things and forcing people. If you want to tick people off, but to a lesser extent, how about this one — allow rental car facilties, subject to enclosure or fencing and signage requirements, in residential zones in lieu of private parking?

    This would only affect the big buildings, but it could affect existing buildings with parking garages as well as new buildings. If you are willing to concede that some trips require an automobile, then the availability of as-needed rentals is a key part of a less auto dependent lifestyle.

    You’d have to have a minimum size, and other requirements. But it may be worth pursuing. Right now, not only would such a facility not be permitted in a residential zone, but it is also excluded from a C1 zone.

  • mfs

    Larry-

    “Today, however, builders, however, are adding parking because it is profitable for them to do so, by choice”

    I really don’t know about that. My sense is that parking in R6 & R7 zones is added both because of minimums and the need to do something that generates revenue with the large amount of open space required for taller buildings by the zoning.

    I’m thinking about a lot of the new development around McCarren Park- would all of those buildings still have chosen to build surface lots in the front, sides, and backs of the buildings had there been no minimums? Would the new development on the Williamsburg Waterfront that’s only 4 blocks from the L still have a parking space for 50% of their units?

    I think there is a strong case to be made here both on the left and the right- the dominant one here from the left is that off-street minimums cause major auto-related externalities. But there is also a case from the right (e.g. conservative urban economists like Ed Glaeser) that the land market should have different uses compete with each other–if people want to rent or buy land to store a vehicle, fine–they just have to compete with those seeking to use that same land for residential uses. In a way, this is an extension of the basic Shoup argument- that if car owners pay market rates for vehicle storage, negative externalities will be reduced.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “Today, however, builders, however, are adding parking because it is profitable for them to do so, by choice” I really don’t know about that. My sense is that parking in R6 & R7 zones is added both because of minimums.”

    For the acid test, head to the other side of Williamsburg, and count the number of spaces in new buildings built by and for the Hasidm. They live a fairly low auto dependency lifestyle, and are out to pack every last square foot of housing in they can. So whatever level of parking they have, one can assume it is either the least they feel people can live with in these areas, or the least the DOB will let them get away with.

    The high rise “luxury” buildings were designed for and marketed to the very affluent. I’m not sure that’s who is going to occupy them in the end, but that was the goal. And most of the very affluent, once they have settle down in a place they are going to live for a very long time, are going to want to have easy access to motor vehicles. (The only exceptions would be affluent people commenting on Streetblog, and perhaps people moving in from Europe).

    Note that in Chicago, which has also had a middle-and-upper middle class housing boom in formerly depressed areas adjacent to the CBD, the development community pushed the Mayor for more parking required, telling him that if he wanted the middle class in the city, that’s what he had to do. I believe they were pushing to go up from one required space per unit!

    Let’s consider my suggestion — allowing rental cars in lieu of (and up to the amount of permitted) required parking in enclosed or screend facilities with limited signage. It could be rented to a rental car company, or to a group like Zipcar.

    In that case, the developer could promote the convenient availability of as needed cars in lieu of parking. And those rental cars would also be available for the broader community, reducing the perceived need to own private motor vehicles there. The easier and cheaper to rent or share, the less need to own.

    And although the development boom is about to bust, a quick zoning change could affect existing buildings. This could happen right now!

    If they go into foreclosure because they have trouble selling units at the reserve price (the miniumum needed for the bank to get their money back), they may be looking for the income the rental car companies could provide by leasing the units. A whole bunch of buildings that were supposed to be for sale have gone for-rent because the units couldn’t sell, and the developer probably has a negative carry — more interest paid than rent collected.

    Think about it.

  • momos

    @ Larry
    The rental car facility in place of parking garage is intriguing, but doesn’t address the main points raised by the report: off-street parking induces auto demand and thus introduces negative externalities; auto facilities disproportionately benefit the wealthy and thus parking requirements (rental or otherwise) involve costs with no benefits accruing to the poor; in a city with the highest population density in North America and extensive transit the opportunity costs of mandated parking are unacceptably high.

    I agree with a principle embedded in your comments, though — that parking for private autos carries even higher costs than parking for “public” autos (ie, rentals).

    This is why the city should heavily promote car sharing programs while at the same time making private car ownership and onerous and expensive as possible. Take the PhillyCarShare model. The City of Philadelphia is reducing its vehicle fleet and having municipal workers use the PhillyCarShare fleet instead. This both increases the total number of people using the car-sharing program, which reduces per unit program costs, but compounds the public benefit of car sharing by reducing municipal gov’t costs and saving taxpayers money.

  • The high rise “luxury” buildings were designed for and marketed to the very affluent.

    I’m skeptical of that, Larry, at least in Brooklyn and Queens. Of course that’s who the developers claimed to be marketing to, but I think they probably were looking for people who have some money but would never qualify as “very affluent.” At the same time, they want to be very affluent, and would jump at the chance to buy a “luxury” apartment within their price range.

    I’m not saying that this invalidates your conclusions, but I think it’s important to make it clear: the new buildings in Manhattan (and probably DUMBO) may be marketed to the very affluent, but those on the waterfront in Williamsburg and LIC are marketed towards people who wish they were very affluent.

  • mfs

    Larry- I think your proposal is worth a shot and worthy of inclusion in the report. However it would have to be tied to a reduction in the minimum spaces required, as it wouldn’t cut down on development costs, since the same number of spaces would have to be built.

    As far as I can tell, the newest Hasidic buildings also have garage doors and back yard lots.

  • JP

    I’m taking the view that we need maximums. We cannot afford to have an increase in the number of autos and VMT as described in the report. Even if their estimates are high, we need to reverse the suburbanization of NYC.

    My favorite portions of the report talks about what makes NYC unique: the urban experience:

    “One of the most attractive aspects of dense cities like New York is the easy access to amenities and destinations. This accessibility has made New York City increasingly attractive to more affluent households, which outside of New York City have high levels of car ownership and use, but who own vehicles at a much lower rate in Manhattan and other dense parts of the city. The more the city tries to accommodate car ownership through residential parking requirements, the more spread out the city becomes, the less accessible its amenities are and the more congested its streets become. This decreases the attractiveness of the city… New York is one of the few cities in the country where the density of land use and the robustness of the transit system make living car-free a feasible option.”

  • Larry Littlefield

    “The City of Philadelphia is reducing its vehicle fleet and having municipal workers use the PhillyCarShare fleet instead.”

    Ha! When at DCP I found that using one of the shared city cars for field research was such a hassle that I either used transit or my own car, uncompensated, to avoid it.

    When I went with others and used the city car, I found that time wasted getting the car and dropping off the car meant a five hour work day, including lunch. Without it, I could just leave from and return to home, eliminating waste.

    Of course if I knew then what I know now, I might have done field work using a bike. Perhaps DCP needs a handlebar attachment for its clipboards.

  • dave snyder

    In San Francisco’s downtown, residential parking requirements were recently changed in ways that probably conform to the report’s recommendations (which I haven’t read). There are no minimum parking requirements. Maximum allowable parking varies from 1 space to every four units, to more than 3 spaces for every four units under certain conditions, including mandatory use of stacked or valet parking and increased affordable housing requirements.

    The rest of San Francisco still has suburban parking requirements: 1 independently accessible parking space for every new housing unit.

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