New Domino Drops 266 Parking Spaces. How Low Can It Go?

New_Domino_across_River.jpgLocal activists have made Williamsburg’s New Domino a little less auto-centric. Image: The New Domino

How few parking spaces should be attached to new developments to make New York a more sustainable city?

That’s the big question for developments like Brooklyn’s New Domino, the huge project slated for the Williamsburg waterfront where developers originally proposed 1,694 parking spaces for about 2,400 residences. Neighborhood activists recently won a 266-space reduction in the amount
of parking but still face an onslaught of new automobiles.

Last week, the City Planning Commission approved the New Domino in a unanimous vote. One of the only changes the commission demanded from the project’s developers was to eliminate one parking lot, reducing the number of parking spaces from 1,694 to 1,428. The 266-space reduction was not based on studies or research. It came straight from a request by Borough President Marty Markowitz.

While the reduction was a victory for livable streets, the fact that more than 1,400 parking spaces remain highlights the immense disconnect between the developer’s initial proposal and goals like reducing traffic or encouraging sustainable transportation. To make the Williamsburg waterfront a
real beacon of sustainable planning, it’s clear that the New Domino
would have to include substantially fewer than 1,428 spaces.

"It’s still going to be an auto-oriented
development," said David King, a professor of planning at Columbia
University who specializes in parking. "1,400 is just a lot of parking
spaces, however you cut it."

"In the Department of City Planning, there’s a group that thinks New York City will collapse on itself if you stop attracting families with cars."

The local community board and Council Member Stephen Levin had asked for even larger reductions in parking. When Community Board 1 requested fewer parking spaces, their resolution
called for "a level significantly less than the maximum allowed under
zoning," or 1,541 spaces, according to land use committee chair Ward
Dennis. Dennis wouldn’t speak for the board as to whether 1,428 was
"significantly" less than 1,541.

So how, at New Domino or in any big project down the line, would you figure out the right amount of parking? 

"That’s a community decision," argued Rachel Weinberger, UPenn professor and parking policy expert. "It’s a vision thing." According to Weinberger, the transportation effects of off-street parking are fairly well-documented, so setting parking levels is a matter of deciding which outcomes you want.

Attaching guaranteed parking spaces to housing is one of the fastest ways to ensure that residents drive, she said, pointing to "Guaranteed Parking, Guaranteed Driving," a report she co-authored for Transportation Alternatives in 2008, as well as more intensive research she is currently conducting. Accordingly, asking how much parking to include is another way of asking how much congestion, environmental damage and danger to pedestrians a community is willing to tolerate in return for making driving more convenient. 

Exactly how many car trips are generated by each off-street space is "an impossible to answer question," said Weinberger, because "it’s such a dynamic system." But it’s perfectly clear that every space eliminated leads to fewer trips by car. 

King agreed, saying that at a parking-laden site like New Domino, "people may not be likely to drive into Midtown Manhattan, but they’ll keep a car and drive for all their other trips." That residential parking leads to more driving, he said, is increasingly well-established. If your only goal is to reduce the number of cars on the road, he added, "there shouldn’t be any parking built whatsoever."

While the effect of building less parking on traffic is fairly clear, the effect on the real estate market is less so. That’s where things get interesting. Would enough people buy or rent parking-free apartments to make them commercially viable? Or would less parking squelch growth in green, transit-rich NYC?

Both King and Weinberger argued that to really understand how to set off-street parking levels, we need market research about the demand for car-free housing in New York. "We have no idea what would happen if there was no parking" at New Domino, said King, "because no one has built anything on that scale recently." If you really couldn’t sell parking-free housing, the right amount of parking for new developments would necessarily be higher than zero.

Of course, looking at neighborhoods with scarce parking just across the river, like Alphabet City, added King, "I suspect it would work out just fine" at a site like New Domino. Older Brooklyn neighborhoods have very low off-street parking levels and very high real estate prices. In Park Slope, only five percent of car owners store their cars at home.

But the institutions pushing more off-street parking on New York City, King and Weinberger argued, do so because they assume that successful development requires more parking. In the Department of City Planning, said Weinberger, "there’s a group of people that think that New York City will collapse on itself if you stop attracting families with cars." If you could show that big projects like New Domino would fill up even without parking, though, they might be less interested in off-street parking.

King speculated that another group might be the best target for market research: Banks. "There’s no bank that’s going to finance an experiment," he said, "so if the banks won’t finance them, the developers won’t build them." At privately financed projects like New Domino, the bank’s influence is direct, but the financial sector could also influence how much parking a public agency like the city’s Economic Development Corporation decides to include in its projects, said King. 

Market research — or better still, demonstration projects — would help determine how the New York market would respond to large developments with parking levels in line with the city’s older neighborhoods. That’s an answer you need to know to figure out the "right" amount of parking in a place like New Domino. 

  • Larry Littlefield

    Associated issues: “how little can you charge.” This isn’t Manhattan. But a less affluent (though still affluent) demographic might be satisifed with on-site Zipcar and bike parking — if the price was low enough. Not far away, the Hasidm seem willing to occupy buildings with no off-street parking.

    Which is related to “how much does it cost.” The same union contract that covers construction in Manhattan also covers construction in Brooklyn, although the customers are less well off. Although in this case it is hard to argue they should be different, as the construction is Manhattan-type high rise. Cutting parking would reduce costs somewhat.

  • spikex

    I am not convinced by the study quoted claiming that more off street parking leads to more driving. Alternate day street parking (if enforced) forces people to drive at least every other day. (If alternate parking rules were ended, would driving go way down?). I suspect it depends much on the area whether more off street parking leads to more driving. In some areas, much of the traffic is people circling the block looking for parking (that or taxis and black cars looking for fares). In my apartment building, which has its own parking, only about 5-10% use their cars daily. Most use their cars only on weekends and some cars are parked for months. Those using the free parking on the street, drive every day.

    It would better to discourage car use (by putting tolls on the east river bridges for example), rather than trying to keep people from owning cars at all.

  • NattyB

    I’m all for reduced parking, but, are we supposed to get everyone there to either (a) bike; and/or (b) take the L? I’m all for that, except, the L at bedford is already at capacity. You have that narrow ass entrance, and that’s it.

    I’m a big biker, but, absent improved L capacity, I’m almost sympathetic to the need for parking. “almost”

  • NattyB, why isnt the developer paying for subway improvements?

  • No one with a private vehicle should be entitled to live anywhere in the city.

    Make the surrounding on-street parking for locals but not New Domino residents. Build spaces for private vehicles for those with special needs and share vehicles (maybe 143 passenger automobiles and 50 passenger vans, 25 trucks, 500 cargo bikes and individual bikes, the latter coordinated with the near-future city programme.) Separate from the utility-oriented cargo bikes, have child-carrying bikes available for people during the time they have kids who need to be carried. Give all residents passes for public transport.

    Buy all the vehicles and arrange their upkeep. All vehicles can be electric, run off of solar plus a tidal-change system in the East River, which will also be a big sculpture, and so close by there will be very little transmission loss. This will also make their energy less abstract.

    This will all be cheaper than parking. Then stop worrying about cars and instead focus on raising children. New Domino should help its denizens help live a sweet life, but not one which is car-candy-coated.

  • Bolwerk

    Would enough people buy or rent parking-free apartments to make them commercially viable? Or would less parking squelch growth in green, transit-rich NYC?

    Both King and Weinberger argued that to really understand how to set off-street parking levels, we need market research about the demand for car-free housing in New York. “We have no idea what would happen if there was no parking” at New Domino, said King, “because no one has built anything on that scale recently.” If you really couldn’t sell parking-free housing, the right amount of parking for new developments would necessarily be higher than zero.

    We probably do have a fairly good idea, based on the relatively car-free culture of that neighborhood in general: more people would move in without cars. Tragic!

    This Domino plan is stupid if it includes anymore than the barest minimum of new parking spaces. This is a pleasant low-car neighborhood, and there’s no reason to ruin that.

    But on the flip side, what a wonderful place to put streetcars. Why, they could go over the bridge right into the abandoned streetcar terminal at Essex. 😉

  • Bleh. So, first, the appropriate amount of parking for Brooklyn’s existing car ownership level is about 1,000 spots. Given that it’s infill in a dense neighborhood, let’s cut it down to Manhattan levels, giving about 720 spots. Of those, many would be on-street. Even using the higher demand level, 1,400 off-street is too much.

    The overtaxing of new development is a bigger problem than the fact that there’s free parking. As noted by John Adams, the transportation expert who I’ve quoted before arguing for Smeed’s Law, “A policy that sought to reduce dependence on the car would seek to restrict traffic in the areas where its growth is fastest – not in congested urban areas, where it has already stopped, but in the suburbs and beyond.” A partial corollary of this is that a larger New York is in nearly all circumstances better for reducing world car dependence, as the alternative is US suburbs with little to no transit.

    The issue with those off-street parking rules is that existing residents like them. They’re effectively subsidies for people who park on-street, paid by taxes on people who have to pay higher rents for off-street parking. The worst part of it is that while existing city residents need a lot of government help, parking minimums do nothing for the people who need the most. In gentrifying low-income neighborhoods, the people who are displaced rarely own a car. Like historic district designations, what those regulations do is protect the first wave of gentry at the expense of future waves.

  • @Alon: Why the status quo on parking per person? Are you just trying to be diplomatic? I could make all sorts of analogies about now shunned or worse things which were once taken for granted…

  • Todd: the status quo is more or less how I’d build if I were a for-profit developer. This is not how I’d regulate it, which is a separate question. Any residential parking regulation is stupid: a minimum is unnecessary because the grid can handle parking on-street except in high-income, high-density areas, where the private sector can supply parking; a maximum is counterproductive because the problem of cars is suburban, not urban. (In commercial areas, the correct policy is to have no parking minimums anywhere, and to have maximums in CBDs and secondary downtowns where transit and walking are reasonable alternatives.)

  • Assuming the number of spaces is above the required minimum, the real question is whether they are getting a floor-area exemption for their off-street parking. I recall this is the law for new development. This is effectively a subsidy to encourage more provision of parking, which is beloved by DCP. The arguments in favor have been made, but the interesting piece is that such requirements are usually advanced by local communities, who want to preserve the existing free street spaces for themselves. Way to go CB1 for being so progressive in demanding a parking REDUCTION! And to Marty as well. (Disclosure: Former Markowitz staffer) The prohibition on parking below 60th street should be extended to the inner Brooklyn and Queens areas with low auto ownership. At a minimum, it is clear the city should stop subsidizing new additional parking.

  • Judd, the zoning law doesn’t prohibit new parking below 60th. What it does is waive parking requirements for all buildings south of East 96th and West 110th. Elsewhere in inner-urban New York, parking requirements are waived only for high-density zoning districts, and only for small buildings.

  • Andrew

    What would go wrong (specifically in this case, or more generally elsewhere in the city) if no parking were mandated?

    Is the city also mandating a store where residents of this development will be able to buy bread and milk?

  • New Domino, the most sustainable new housing development in all of New York City. The East River, Brooklyn, East Village, Wall Street and Mid-Town just minutes away.

    We’re smart, and not scared, so we decided to save money, construction time, embedded carbon and structural complications while giving our residents the most comprehensive mobility package in the entire USA.

    How do we do this? At New Domino, every resident, from children to elderly and the mobility impaired, can access a full range of transport options with their smart car for entry into the complex, which doubles as one for bike share, carshare, weekend rental cars, collective public transport ferries and more…

    Visit http://www.sweetlife.com and don’t be scared.

  • Ian Turner

    Andrew, greater competition for on-street parking spaces, clearly unacceptable to existing drivers.

  • What would go wrong (specifically in this case, or more generally elsewhere in the city) if no parking were mandated?

    The city is used to having regulations for everything. Even DMI, which is generally progressive and pro-livable streets, just can’t imagine there being no regulations about something; its official position is that off-street parking requirements should be reduced but not eliminated.

    Think of it as the political equivalent of not-invented-here syndrome.

  • How about “off-street mobility fleet requirements” for all the various types of vehicles I suggest?

    On-street parking can just be for people who currently use it, based on their registered residence, with New Dominicans not allowed.

  • the vast majority of streets all through williamsburg are one way, one lane streets. with the parking requirement and number of new units going into the neighborhood, it’s an impending disaster. imagine every street in the neighborhood like that. what are they going to do, start tearing down buildings to make the streets wider?

    idiots.

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