The Next New York: How NYC Can Grow as a Walkable City

This is the conclusion of a three-part series on the
reshaping of New York City and its consequences for sustainability and
livable streets. Here’s where to catch part one and part two.

Amanda_Burden.jpgWill City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden foster walkable development and livable streets in her third term? Image: Wikipedia.

In the last eight years, the Department of City Planning has rezoned 20 percent of New York along relatively transit-oriented lines, while simultaneously promoting quasi-suburban projects at prominent sites and maintaining parking minimums that erode the pedestrian environment. In other words, the planning department is promoting growth in the right places, but enabling the wrong kind of development.

The rezonings are not stopping. The department recently announced plans to rezone two underutilized commercial corridors in the Bronx for mixed-use development. Planners also continue to facilitate mega-projects in conjunction with the NYC Economic Development Corporation, like the redevelopment of Willets Point in Flushing.

So in the next four years, will New York’s planners adopt more sustainable practices or continue the status quo? The department’s clear awareness of the need for transit-oriented, sustainable growth gives hope for improvement. But the experts Streetsblog spoke to all agreed that change is needed.

One frequent criticism of the department is that city planners employ a piecemeal approach, without using all the tools at their disposal. "There’s a joke about the Department of City Planning," said Joan Byron of the the Pratt Center for Community Development, "that
they’re really the Department of City Zoning."

The sentiment that "rezonings are not enough" was shared by many. Planning "shouldn’t be a sporadic, ad-hoc thing, but a comprehensive approach," said Ron Shiffman, a co-founder of the Pratt Center for Community
Development and a former planning commissioner. "I thought that’s what PlaNYC 2030 would help us do."

Shiffman urged the incorporation of transit planning earlier in the development process. "They should be putting in transit lines that are guaranteed prior to the development," he said. "There should be a rider and seat evaluation before any redevelopment or any very high-density rezoning."

"The fact is that we’re not trying to leverage our transit system to create more pedestrian or transit-oriented environments."

Jonathan Bowles, the director of the Center for an Urban Future,
generally agreed. "For several of the rezonings," he said, "there
should have been more transportation planning." 

City agencies are not strangers to the idea of getting developers to help finance expanded transit service. Just this month, EDC president Seth Pinsky signaled his agency’s interest in "value capture" — channeling some of the value of real estate development into the addition of transit capacity. Interestingly, Shiffman identified Hudson Yards and the 7 Line
extension as one of the only places where this has occurred, although
he doesn’t endorse the entire project.

Another repeatedly voiced suggestion is that the planning department needs to do more to address flaws embedded in the entire zoning code, rather than focus mainly on
individual rezonings. "There will still be opportunities to continue these targeted
rezonings," said L. Nicolas Ronderos of the Regional
Plan Association, "but moving forward I’d like to see more technical revisions
to the underlying code."

On that score, revising the 50-year-old off-street parking
requirements in the zoning code would present a huge opportunity for
sustainability and livable streets.

New_Domino.jpgThe Domino Sugar redevelopment in North Brooklyn, now undergoing public review, would construct 1,694 new parking spots. Image: thenewdomino.com.

Eighteen months ago, a broad coalition of environmental, transportation and planning advocates called on the planning department to implement a package of parking reforms [PDF]. While the department has begun to study some of the questions raised by these groups, no concrete reforms have been enacted.

The parking reform recommendations, which accompanied the release of the report Suburbanizing the City, urge the city to eliminate parking minimums, institute parking maximums near transit, stop subsidizing the construction of parking, and separate the price of parking from the price of housing (which can make housing more affordable while discouraging the purchase and construction of parking).

The key, said report co-author Rachel Weinberger, is to connect the planning department’s transit-oriented zoning to a transit-oriented parking policy. "Even while our parking minimums are generally quite low," she said, "the fact is that we’re not trying to leverage our transit system to create more pedestrian or transit-oriented environments around transit stations."

Off-street parking reform must overcome the territorial instinct of car owners who fear increased competition for on-street space. It’s not an easy political lift. And reforming the mega-project approach to redevelopment will require a tougher stance with private sector builders, guided by a firmer vision for the future of the city.

Both tactics are necessary to deliver on the sustainability goals of PlaNYC. To do it, Mayor Bloomberg will have to show the same backbone he’s displayed in his public health initiatives. "If you’re the kind of tough love mayor that has the guts to ban smoking and transfats," argued Joan Byron, "you should be able to look the developers in the eye and tell them that it’s a new world. If you won’t develop a good urban environment, others will."

  • Larry Littlefield

    Well, here is my view.

    Tying development to transit expansions and service increases means prohibiting development, because the MTA is broke as a result of past debts, and the cost (if passed on to the developer) and process delays would make infill development unprofitable. So if you want to reduce parking, you need to frame it in terms of walking and biking.

    And a citywide approach won’t work because it will generate too much opposition. You’d have City Council members reprsenting Tottenville voting on it.

    What I would suggest is City Council legislation that allows INDIVIDUAL NEIGHBORHOODS to adopt, by referendum after a proposal by the Transportation Commissioner, City Council member or Community Board, a PACKAGE of zoning changes AND street parking changes.

    For those areas that wanted it:

    The parking requirements would be reduced or eliminated and made maximums, and the parking location restrictions of (for example) R5B would be present throughout the area. A minimum of 34 feet between curb cuts, and no curb cuts for one- and two-family homes. Paid parking and rental car establishemnts would be permitted in enclosed structures in residential zones, with signage restrictions (that were actually enforced).

    To satisfy the incumbent street parkers, overnight parking would be by permit, with only those licensed and insured within the area eligible for the permits. Those licensed and insured on the date of the adoption would get the permits for $120 per year ($10 per month). Those who wanted to park in the future would pay three times that much, with adjustment for inflation. And in an area where a “parking shortage” was declared, no new permits would be issued unless and until an existing parker gave up their permit. Shared vehicles (Zipcar) would be exempt.

    (Normally I’m outraged by the many deals that stick it to the new and the young at the expense of vested interests, but in this case those who wanted cars could go elsewhere, and those who could live without them would be better off).

    An area with such regulations would create the equivalent of a BID, say a Public Space Improvement District, and would retain ALL the parking permit revneues IN ADDITION to receiving its pro-rata share of general fund street maintenance funds. The city would hire additional DOT staff to provide the extra services, funded by the revenues.

    Among the uses: local teens would be hired to sweep the gutters, eliminating alternate side of the street, the city would take over the maintenance of ITS sidewalks through the PSID. Two parking spaces at each intersection would be replaced with sidewalk extensions partially occupied by bike racks, to improve pedestrian safety and provide a place for new, carless neighbors to park. Potholes would be filled right away, and trees would be planted and trimmed, regardless of what was happening to the overall city budget.

    In addition, the speed limit on 60 foot wide (or less) one-lane streets would be reduced to 20 miles per hour. Most city streets have that width (including sidewalks). And street directions would be altered to discourage through traffic. Signs would be posted to inform motor vehicles that they were entering a “livable streets area” and to slow down.

    Since this package would not require approval by Albany, it is possible the city could do it. And since it would only apply to neighborhoods that wanted it, it is possible that the Vaccas of the world might allow it.

  • Everybody walking is great! Making it safe for everybody to use bicycles and tricycles is even better improving efficiency by 300% to 400% for the same distance traveled walking; a reduction in emissions of 75% over walking! ? !

  • It’s been my opinion for several years now that the billionaire mayor is firmly in bed with global business interests. The smoking ban, the transfat ban, and the schools takeover are just examples of how he is trying to develop a New York that is more appealing to global businesses, down to the level of ensuring a healthy, well-educated workforce.

    I wonder whether the idea of an outer-borough apartment without a parking space can be made appealing enough to middle managers and symbolic analysts for the billionaire mayor to adopt it. Speaking only from my own family experience, I can say that my country-born cousin gave up his midtown financial-journalism job and moved to Chicago partly because he missed having a car.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “My country-born cousin gave up his midtown financial-journalism job and moved to Chicago partly because he missed having a car.”

    New York City is a big place, and there are parts of it with two car garages and detached houses. That’s why I suggest diversity. Let the places that want to become less car oriented move in that direction, without being held back by Douglaston.

  • Larry, please stop it with that “neighborhood opt-in” business. My neighborhood in Queens is very dense and doesn’t need any more parking, but the small political elite would opt for the suburban way of doing things. We’re better off with Amanda Burden than with those clowns deciding how much parking there will be.

  • #3 Jonathan, re: “because he missed having a car”

    Automobiles make the streets, roads, and public spaces unsafe and represent an industrial complex that should be subject to broad anti-trust proceedings.

    The automobile and associated entrenched industries (insurance, finance, oil, electronics, media, and advertising) maintain local monopolies of transportation systems based on cars by making it or allowing it to be too dangerous for much better more sensible methods that are safe, inexpensive, and have less than 1% the environmental footprint.

    This is the total breakdown of the rule of law. This is rule of special interest in the rapid breakdown of the intended governance of the United States of America.

    You do not need insurance when transportation is safe.

    You do not need much finance when vehicles cost what they normal cost as a down payment in extremely wasteful legacy systems.

    Cars are not practical, safe, cost-effective, . . . and the polemic continues . . .

    The corruption of transportation systems based on cars is on par with that of the finance system that required many hundreds of billions of dollars to bail out and will likely require similar wasteful interventions to survive; in the case of automobiles, only temporarily as they do not fit in the future. Right now 25% of the grain in this world is used to provide ethanol for cars while global starvation rates are rising. The amount of grain required to fill a 25-gallon SUV feeds a person for a year.

    The devastation is very real both locally — go take a walk around Newton Creek in Brooklyn, NY — and global. Yes, global warming is very real and accelerating much faster than scientists ever thought and is a dire threat to civilization as we know it but, of course, it is so sad “he missed having a car.”

  • Boris

    Larry,

    I don’t see the mayor or city council agree to a neighborhood usurpation of their power significantly greater than that of borough presidents or community boards (since there is money involved). It would take a major home-rule precedent, plus the many small PSIDs would be corruption havens.

    Although in theory this is a great plan. The pro-suburban forces would be put in the same position as when Republican states were rejecting stimulus money for ideological reasons.

  • Larry, how about starting by letting neighborhoods determine their own zoning, instead of having Bloomberg do it for them? There’s an existing process for upzoning, called 197a. The city has made it as powerless as possible, and reduced the power of community boards elsewhere, in order to make sure zoning is determined by developers instead of communities.

    The 20 mph, alternating directions part is pure show. It’s not necessary for safe streets – plenty of neighborhoods have safe streets without those ideas, for example all of Upper Manhattan. The only reason to do it is to make a symbolic statement.

    And Gecko, do you have a cite for the ethanol statistic? It’s way higher than anything I’ve read. For a start, it’s mostly US corn and Brazilian sugar are used for fuel, and even if every US corn cob and Brazilian sugar cane were converted to fuel, it would be much, much less than 25%.

  • #8 Alon Levy, “do you have a cite for the ethanol statistic?”

    My apologies and may have been mistaken though not entirely sure. This came from Lester R. Brown ( http://www.earth-policy.org) and will look further. In a 2006 report he specifies 3% of grain used for fuel growing at 20% per year (see below):

    http://www.earth-policy.org//index.php?/indicators/C54

    Eco-Economy Indicators
    Grain Harvest
    June 15, 2006
    World Grain Stocks Fall to 57 Days of Consumption: Grain Prices Starting to Rise

    Lester R. Brown

    “Roughly 60 percent of the world grain harvest is consumed as food, 36 percent as feed, and 3 percent as fuel. While the use of grain for food and feed grows by roughly 1 percent per year, that used for fuel is growing by over 20 percent per year.”

    http://www.earth-policy.org/search/index.php?q=ethanol

    http://www.earth-policy.org/images/uploads/book_files/pb4book.pdf

  • #8 Alon Levy (continued), “do you have a cite for the ethanol statistic?”

    My statement was incorrect: “25% of the grain in this world is used to provide ethanol”

    The correct statement would have been 25% of the grain in the United States is used to provide ethanol

    Here is the reference:

    One Quarter of U.S. Grain Crops Fuel Cars

    http://current.com/items/92023543_one-quarter-of-u-s-grain-crops-fuel-cars.htm

    http://www.earth-policy.org/index.php?/press_room/C69/jan2910/

  • New Urbaning Along

    Why can’t Amanda Burden and Seth Pinsky show up at CNU in Atlanta and get a serious education on how to create value without creating traffic? Also building healthy communities at the same time, the CDC will be a major contributor this year.

  • Judd Schechtman

    Great article and thread. Streetsblog is the only place talking sense about zoning and parking issues. Congrats.

    No one wants to rest on our laurels, but the truth is that the current planning system we have work pretty well. The charter review commission even agrees. There is something pretty fantastic about the multi-tiered federalist approach to planning we have in ULURP. Even if it is not as comprehensive as we would like, it allows the opportunity for all factions, from the Mayor and Planning Commission down to the community board, to have a say.

    I am currently conducting with a colleague studying the relationship between governmental fragmentation and sprawl. Preliminary results tend to show a correlation between the two. Places with strong central governments can overcome the politics of local opposition to density, which is needed for true transit-oriented development.

    Yet, what kind of democracy would we have without local input? The ULURP process, messy as it is, is fair and works. Out on LI, where I am currently conducting research on TOD, any density is all but nearly impossible since local governments reflect the local fear of urbanism present in their electorate. Walking, biking and transit advocates should recognize this fact and work on improving, not trying to repeal, the current shared-powers approach.

    For those of you who think CNU can teach NYC any lessons, take a look at any of the paradigmatic TNDs – Kentlands, Seaside, Celebration – all are essentially “urban” islands on the scale of downtown Scarsdale without Scarsdale’s train stop.

    NYC is the only place in the country that really has the potential to continue to build on a truly transit-oriented city, which is why I agree parking requirments here are patently absurd. For all Bloomberg’s professed market-orientedness, there sure are a lot of regs. Why should we mandate parking? Let the market decide. It will decide against parking in a lot of the city, for sure.